New research has shown that humans and (some) dogs are not the only animals that understand hand gestures. Researchers Richard Byrne and Anna Smet from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have discovered that African Elephants can actually interpret human gestures without any training. Byrne pointed out that the elephants’ accurate response to human instructions could explain why elephants have used as work animals, such as circus performers, for centuries. New research has also shown that it is possible that elephants are actually capable of responding to pointing gestures with their own, using their trunks instead of fingers.
The study began with 11 African Elephants that had been held in captive to give tourists rides near Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Smet would place two buckets at opposite ends, one containing food and the other empty, and would point towards the bucket with food. Smet recalls that the elephants seemed to understand and chose the bucket she pointed towards nearly every time. The elephants seemed to understand where Smet was pointing every time, and could even interpret where they were supposed to go by following the direction of her gaze. Byrne made sure to note that the elephants were only trained before at the tourist camp to follow vocal instructions, never by hand gestures.
Phyllis Lee, a professor from Scotland’s University of Stirling, has conducted past research on African elephants and their understanding of human instruction and is not surprised by Bryne and Amet’s findings. Lee told National Geographic that after many experiments and observations of elephants, it appears that they do in fact understand gestures like pointing, and might even be responding to certain motions with their large trunks! Lee believes that elephants are actually pointing or gesturing with their trunks sometimes and not just raising them for smelling. Byrne notes the importance of these findings because most while some animals can understand pointing, elephants might be the only ones who are capable of pointing back.
This research shows that animals are capable of so much more than we give them credit for! To see more of the experiment about elephants and pointing, check out these videos of Byrne and Amet’s study: