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Originally published Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 5:00 PM

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Elephants seem to get the point of pointing, study shows

Scientists have found that pointing is a rare gift in the animal kingdom, and that even our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, don’t seem to understand the sophisticated act. But one study indicates that African elephants do.

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We point to things without giving much thought to what a sophisticated act it is. By simply extending a finger, we can let other people know we want to draw their attention to an object, and indicate which object it is.

Babies usually learn to do it by their first birthday.

“If you don’t get that they’re drawing your attention to an object, they’ll get cross,” said Richard Byrne, a biologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

When scientists test other species, they find that pointing is a rare gift in the animal kingdom. Even our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, don’t seem to get the point of pointing.

But Byrne and his graduate student Anna Smet say they have discovered wild animals that also appear to understand pointing: elephants. The study, involving 11 African elephants, is not the last word on the subject. But it raises the possibility that elephants have a social intelligence that rivals humans’ in some ways.

Researchers use a simple test to see if animals understand pointing. They put food in one of two identical containers and then silently point at the one with food in it. Then they wait to see which container the animal approaches.

While primates and most other animals that have been studied fail the test, a few have done well. Most of them are domesticated mammals, with dogs proving to be especially good at understanding pointing.

Byrne began to wonder if elephants could pass the pointing test.

Smet traveled to Zimbabwe, where a company called Wild Horizons offers elephant-back safaris. Each morning, while the elephants were waiting to take tourists on a trip, Smet would set up two buckets behind a screen.

An elephant handler would bring one of the animals a few yards away from her. The elephant watched Smet lower pieces of fruit behind the screen and put them into one of the buckets. But the elephant couldn’t see which bucket she put the fruit in.

“I actually checked that from elephant height,” Smet said.

Smet then brought the buckets out from behind the screen and stood between them. She pointed at the one with the fruit inside, and the handler walked the elephant toward the buckets. Smet noted which bucket it stuck its trunk in first.

For two months, Smet tested 11 elephants. When she crunched the data afterward, she found that the elephants picked the right bucket 67.5 percent of the time. (Human babies at 1 do a little better at these tests, scoring 72.7 percent.)

Smet found that the elephants could follow her pointing whether she stuck out her whole arm or just used her hand. When she simply stood between the buckets, by contrast, the elephants stuck their trunks in the buckets at random.

Smet and Byrne published the results Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Other researchers were cautious about drawing conclusions from the study. Diana Reiss, an expert on elephant cognition at Hunter College, wondered if the elephants had already learned about pointing by observing their handlers.

“In these elephant camps such opportunities can easily go unnoticed by their human caretakers,” Reiss said.

Byrne and Smet plan to address this question and investigate whether wild elephants can point to one another.

“It makes us want to revisit visual signals by elephants for elephants,” Smet said.

Byrne is also curious to know whether any other highly social wild mammals can pass the pointing test. Whales and dolphins would be at the top of his list.

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