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Curr Biol. 2013 Oct 21;23(20):2033-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.08.037. Epub 2013 Oct 10.

African elephants can use human pointing cues to find hidden food.

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Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9JP, UK.


How animals gain information from attending to the behavior of others has been widely studied, driven partly by the importance of referential pointing in human cognitive development [1-4], but species differences in reading human social cues remain unexplained. One explanation is that this capacity evolved during domestication [5, 6], but it may be that only those animals able to interpret human-like social cues were successfully domesticated. Elephants are a critical taxon for this question: despite their longstanding use by humans, they have never been domesticated [7]. Here we show that a group of 11 captive African elephants, seven of them significantly as individuals, could interpret human pointing to find hidden food. We suggest that success was not due to prior training or extensive learning opportunities. Elephants successfully interpreted pointing when the experimenter's proximity to the hiding place was varied and when the ostensive pointing gesture was visually subtle, suggesting that they understood the experimenter's communicative intent. The elephant's native ability in interpreting social cues may have contributed to its long history of effective use by man.

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