Elephants, with no prior training, look when humans point. Researcher says this apparently in-built ability to read human social cues may account for why elephants work well with people.
Aristotle once described elephants as "the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind," and now researchers appear to have more evidence to support that notion. Elephants seem to share with humans a hard-wired ability see a person point in a direction and turn their attention that way.
With no apparent training or preferential breeding, elephants interpret this human gesture as "look here" or "go there," something humans' closest relatives, great apes and chimps, do not do in the wild.
Such nonverbal gestures play a key role in the development of children before they learn how to speak, says Richard Byrne, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at St. Andrews University in Scotland who, along with graduate student Anna Smet, conducted the study.
No one has seen any species other than humans use this form of communication naturally, he says in an interview. For elephants, "the skill has to come from somewhere."
"We're now thinking that this must come from the natural communication system of elephants, although pointing has never been described in the wild. But they do a lot with their trunks that could, in principal, function as pointing," he says.
Humans have harnessed the power of elephants for thousands of years to do everything from hauling logs to waging war. Indeed, this remarkable history has presented a puzzle, Dr. Byrne explains: How is it that elephants can work well with people without being specifically bred for the work?
Over the years, researchers have found in elephants a high level of intelligence, strong social ties, a capacity for compassion and cooperation, and a range of other advanced mental skills, even a capacity for producing abstract art.
As with many types of dogs, an apparently innate ability to interpret human signs could have come through the elephants' long association with humans, some argue, instead of having some far deeper evolutionary origin.