Why elephants work well with people: They get the point (+video)
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.
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In the experiments, the elephants were presented with two buckets, one of which had been filled with food outside their view. Smet then used several types of gestures, varied her distance from the baited bucket, and even tried to use gaze alone to let the elephants know which bucket to approach.Skip to next paragraph
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The animals responded to the gestures at levels better than chance. The strongest response, getting to the right bucket 67.5 percent of the time, came when Smet used a fully outstretched arm and pointer finger. Two-year-old humans respond to that same gesture about 72.7 percent of the time, the researchers note.
The elephants didn't respond well to the use of gaze and head direction as a pointer.
The duo was able to rule out the elephants' sense of smell as the food detector by having Smet not point at anything. No elephant did better than random chance in finding the baited bucket.
“We always hoped that our elephants ... would be able to learn to follow human pointing," Smet said, in a prepared statement. “But what really surprised us is that they did not apparently need to learn anything. Their understanding was as good on the first trial as the last, and we could find no sign of learning over the experiment.”
The results contradict those from experiments with Asian elephants, the team acknowledges. Other researchers looking for response to gestures in Asian elephants have found none.
Part of that may stem from differences in the design of the experiments for each type of elephant, Byrne says. Or it could be that the elephants at Wild Horizons have a simpler background compared with elephants in Thailand, where gestural experiments have been conducted. The Thai elephants come out of the logging industry and where they are intensively trained to follow the foot movements of the handlers riding on them.
"Maybe they just don't bother to look at things like this anymore," Byrne says.
As to how African elephants might have developed rudimentary gestures, Byrne refers to past experiments he's conducted that test an elephant's response to bad smells or potentially alarming stimuli. The first elephant to sense danger or a foul odor would raise his or her trunk in an S shape, with the S pointing in the direction of the stimulant.
Most researchers have interpreted that as the elephant picking up the scent in what they've dubbed the "periscope sniff," Byrne says.
That may be the initial reason for hoisting a trunk, Byrne acknowledges.
"But that also shows where the elephant's attention is directed," he adds, noting that others in the herd begin to look in that direction. The trunk's shape may not mimic Smet's outstretched arm, but it serves the same purpose for the rest of the herd, he suggests.
Whatever the explanation, "Our findings suggest that elephants seem to understand us humans in a way most other animals don’t,” he says.
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