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December 6, 2013

Do animals understand pointing like humans do?

(Continued)

Recently Prof. Byrne and his graduate student Anna Smet published their results from doing the pointing test with elephants. As reported in The New York Times, Smet went to Zimbabwe where a company called Wild Horizons gave her access to 11 elephants. She did the pointing test using fruit in buckets, pointing to the container with the food while standing between the two buckets.

It was easy to record which bucket the elephant first stuck its trunk in. The elephants picked the right bucket 67.5 percent of the time. That’s not bad – human babies score around 73 percent.

Smet didn’t document any learning on the part of the elephants. That is, the animals didn’t get better over time, learning that she was pointing to the bucket with the food. Buster, I am sure, would learn in any similar test – food really motivates him and he picks up on things around my house without formal instruction.

Everyone knows about dogs and the type of intelligence they display. But this research on elephants is new. It makes some investigators think elephants have a deeply social kind of intelligence.

There remains another question for elephant research. Do the giant pachyderms themselves ever point? In a herd of wild elephants, are there occasions to point, say with a long and handy trunk?

Stay tuned.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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