Elephants Understand What We Mean When We Point

©. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

We know elephants are incredibly smart, emotionally complex animals. Yet they never cease to amaze us as we learn more about just how intelligent they are. They can do something no other wild animal has been proven to do -- they get what we mean when we point at something. A wild elephant with no training understands what a human is trying to communicate when we point.

This might be something easy to scoff at, at first. Hey, our arms look like their trunks so of course! Or hey, my dog knows what I'm communicating when I point, what's the big deal?

The big deal is that pointing is not such an instinctive form of communication for animals. Even our close relative the chimpanzee doesn't get right away that we are trying to indicate for them to acknowledge something aligned with but apart from our pointing finger. And even for dogs, who are so brilliant with reading our pointing gesture, have had thousands of years of domestication and daily training to get what that gesture means.

So consider again: an undomesticated animal with no training innately understanding a relatively complex communicative gesture. That's amazing!

io9 reports, "[Richard Byrne, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K.] and his colleague Anna Smet wondered if African elephants might hold the key to the answer. These incredibly smart giants live in complex social groups, where understanding social cues from each other is necessary for survival. What's more, they readily form working relationships with humans, but have never been domesticated... The research suggests that the capacity to understand human pointing gestures may explain why elephants have a long history of working closely with humans, and that domestication isn't exactly necessary for the ability to arise. The research also suggests pointing may be part of elephants' natural communication system."

What is exceptionally amazing is how elephants responded in the experiment compared to similar experiments done on dogs and chimpanzees: "In previous experiments with dogs and chimpanzees, the animals incorrectly used the elbow direction as a cue. Two-year-old children, on the other hand, don't follow the elbow or the pointing — the elephants behaved similar to the children."

Just. Wow.

We really can never underestimate the amazing intelligence of these creatures.