Elephants Get the Point


The next time you need to show an elephant where something is, just point. Chances are he’ll understand what you mean.

New research shows elephants spontaneously understand the communicative intent of human pointing and can use it as a cue to find food.

Richard Byrne and Anna Smet of the University of St. Andrews tested 11 African elephants on what’s known as the object-choice task. In this task, a food reward is hidden in one of several containers and the experimenter signals which one by pointing to it.

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.

Written By: Mary Bates
continue to source article at wired.com


  1. I read through the entire article silently screaming in my head, “maybe elephants point with their trunks!” Finally in the last paragraph they said the researchers wondered the same thing.

    My experience with my dogs is that they tended to want to sniff my fingertip. It helped them look where I was pointing if I pointed with a sort of throwing motion, because they were used to me throwing toys.

    • In reply to #3 by God fearing Atheist:

      The experimenter probably controlled for the smell of the food in the buckets. It is a pity the article didn’t mention it.

      This does. Paragraphs 8 & 9.

      he’ll understand

      If females could be used with this experiment, how would they fare.

  2. Elephants have impressive numbers of neurons. Even more remarkable is the very high level of cortical neurons (those associated with executive and social functions amongst other things). Even more astonishing is the apparent fraction of the brain these cortical neurons constitute. A quarter of human neurons are cortical. It would seem half of elephant brains are cortical. Their cortex is half the size of ours in neuron count!

  3. Dolphins understand pointing. I remember the day we put a screen underwater hooked up to an underwater camera. They were fascinated with the images, and played with them much as a young human would. The was not a mirror.

    Then they explored the limited of the image, watching themselves disappear off the edge and come back onto the image.

    There was a behavioural scientist who set up an experiment what had a red and green light and a couple of touch paddles. Dr. Lilly said, “You will have to make it more complicated than that”. He ignored Lilly. Of course the dolphins figured it out in a couple of trials. He then decided he needed 50 trials for statistical significance. The dolphins tossed his experiment out of the pool and would never again let him in the pool.

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