Elephants Get the Point

People understand pointing, even as young children. But the track record of other animals on the object-choice task is mixed. Domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats, and horses, tend to perform better than wild ones. Even our closest relative, the chimpanzee, typically struggles to understand pointing when it’s used by human caretakers.

What’s so remarkable about the elephants’ success on the object-choice task is that they did it spontaneously. Byrne says that in studies of other species, the animals have had the opportunity to learn the task. This is usually during the experiment itself, which consists of a prolonged series of tests over which the animals come to realize they will get rewarded with food if they follow the line of the human’s pointing.

But the elephants performed as well on the first trial as on later tests and showed no signs of learning over the course of the experiments.