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Elephants Get the Point, Scientists Say

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October 14, 2013

Elephants can get the point, even when it's a human doing the pointing. That's the result of a series of tests carried out on African elephants at a lodge in Zimbabwe.

Carrying out the tests were a group of scientists from the United Kingdom. The test involved a person offering the elephants a choice between to buckets that looked exactly the same. They buckets were different, though, in that one bucket contained a treat that was not visible to the elephants.

From the first, the scientists reported, the elephants were able to show evidence that they understood the intention of the pointing gesture by the scientists, who were using their arms and fingers to indicate which bucket contained the treat. No training had taken place before the tests, and the elephants picked up right away on the necessity to follow the fingers to the food.

Previous studies had attempted to elicit similar reactions from chimpanzees, the primates closest to human, but the chimpanzees had showed no such aptitude.

The lead researcher was Ann Smet of the University of St. Andrews. Co-author Richard Byrne said that the results were published in the latest edition of Current Biology.

The next step, according to both Byrne and Smet, is to determine whether an elephants' extension of its trunk is the pachderm equivalent of pointing.

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