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Elephants unique in getting the point of humans, study finds

Elephants appear to grasp the point of pointing without any training, a study has found Photo: PA

Humans have been studying elephants for more than 300 years, and working with them for more than four millennia, but it seems we have overlooked an important trait we have in common.

Researchers found that elephants and humans are unique in the animal kingdom in their ability to understand the gesture of pointing.

Professor Richard Byrne and Anna Smet of the University of St Andrews worked with elephants in Zimbabwe and found that they got the gist of human pointing as a cue to find food.

But the most surprising result was that the elephants appeared to require no training: "Their understanding was as good on the first trial as the last," Byrne said.

ITV News Africa Correspondent Rohit Kachroo reports:

"The reason for being interested in pointing is that it is so important to human development," Byrne explained.

"When people want to direct the attention of others, they will naturally do so by pointing, starting from a very young age," he added.

"Most other animals do not point, nor do they understand pointing when others do it. Even our closest relatives, the great apes, typically fail to understand pointing when it's done for them by human carer."

Certain domesticated animals, like dogs, can be taught to understand pointing, probably "from repeated, one-to-one interactions with their owners".

But elephants appear to understand the motion instinctively without being trained, raising the possibility that they use their trunks to point in the wild.

Professor Byrne told ITV News that even though elephants are very distant relatives of humans in genetic terms, he is not surprised by the findings because they are such social creatures:

"By showing that African elephants spontaneously understand human pointing, without any training to do so, we have shown that the ability to understand pointing is not uniquely human but has also evolved in a lineage of animal very remote from the primates," Byrne said.

Elephants are known to make regular prominent trunk gestures. It remains to be seen whether they act as "points" in elephant society, but the researchers do not rule the possibility out.

The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, shed light on the way elephants have been associated with humans for thousands of years.