Elephants get the point

Elephants are smarter than previously understood, according to research published Oct. 10 in the journal Current Biology.

A pair of researchers from the University of St. Andrews tested 11 African elephants, all in captivity, to see if the animals understood the point of pointing.

The test was simple: the researchers stood between two buckets, facing the elephant. One bucket contained food, the other was empty. When they pointed to the bucket containing food, the elephant moved its trunk there, following the outstretched arm.

Only 5 of the 11 elephants chose the proper bucket, but overall, the elephants chose properly 67.5 percent of the time.

When the researcher simply looked at the right bucket, without pointing, the elephants chose properly only 46.7 percent of the time, indicating the outstretched arm was impacting their choice.

The tests have been conducted on many animals, but few show the cognitive capacity to understand the command. Dogs, cats and horses, among other domesticated animals, seem to understand that there is often a reward at the end of a pointing hand.

But these animals only perform well on the tests after they have a chance to learn what pointing means. According to this study, elephants can spontaneously figure it out, with no previous instruction.

Chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, including Asian elephants, do not seem able to process the point of pointing. Researchers have taken this as a clue that the ability to understand pointing evolved during domestication. While not exactly domestic pets, elephants have been working with humans for more than 4,000 years.

"The unique elephant-human relationship provides a singular opportunity to test whether an ability to respond to human social cues is a characteristic found in any wild animal that can form a close working relationship with humans," the researchers wrote. "Elephants are thus an ideal study species to investigate whether responsiveness to human social cues is an essential enabling characteristic for close cooperation with humans or whether this responsiveness is a secondary result of domestication."

Interestingly, the elephants in this test were the closest we'll find to domesticated elephants: they spend most of their days giving rides to tourists in southern Africa. But the researchers say this constant interaction with humans did not impede the study, because the elephants normally are handled with vocal commands only.

As for why elephants have evolved to understand pointing, the authors speculated that it has to do with living in groups.

"For group-living animals, gaining information from conspecifics [animals of the same species] offers advantage: interpreting the behavior of others in the social group, who may have privileged knowledge, can increase foraging success or early predator detection," they wrote.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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