Animal Cognition

, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 1365–1374 | Cite as

Interpretation of human pointing by African elephants: generalisation and rationality

  • Anna F. Smet
  • Richard W. ByrneEmail author
Original Paper


Factors influencing the abilities of different animals to use cooperative social cues from humans are still unclear, in spite of long-standing interest in the topic. One of the few species that have been found successful at using human pointing is the African elephant (Loxodonta africana); despite few opportunities for learning about pointing, elephants follow a pointing gesture in an object-choice task, even when the pointing signal and experimenter’s body position are in conflict, and when the gesture itself is visually subtle. Here, we show that the success of captive African elephants at using human pointing is not restricted to situations where the pointing signal is sustained until the time of choice: elephants followed human pointing even when the pointing gesture was withdrawn before they had responded to it. Furthermore, elephants rapidly generalised their response to a type of social cue they were unlikely to have seen before: pointing with the foot. However, unlike young children, they showed no sign of evaluating the ‘rationality’ of this novel pointing gesture according to its visual context: that is, whether the experimenter’s hands were occupied or not.


Pointing Social cues Object-choice Rationality Communication 



We are grateful to Wild Horizons and its board of directors in Victoria Falls for granting us permission to work with the elephants; Z. Sibanda and staff at Wild Horizons for advice and assistance with practical aspects of running the study and R. Parry and J. Dawson of the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust for facilitation and logistical support on site. This research was carried out with funding from a departmental studentship from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience of the University of St Andrews, awarded to AFS.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical standard

The experiments described in this paper comply with the current laws of the country in which they were performed.

Supplementary material

10071_2014_772_MOESM1_ESM.docx (1.2 mb)
Supplementary material Online Resource 1 Supplementary results and figures. Supplementary fig. 1. Shows the mean duration of the unsustained pointing cue in Experiment 1. Supplementary fig. 2. The number of elephants that chose correctly on the first and last trials of each condition in Experiment 1. Supplementary fig. 3. The number of elephants that chose correctly on the first and last trials of each condition in Experiment 2. (DOCX 1255 kb)

Supplementary material Online Resource 2 Video clip from Experiment 1 showing a sustained whole-arm ipsilateral pointing trial (MPG 6290 kb)

Supplementary material Online Resource 3 Video clip from Experiment 1 showing an unsustained whole-arm ipsilateral pointing trial (MPG 5056 kb)

Supplementary material Online Resource 4 Video clip from Experiment 2 showing a ‘rational’ leg point trial (MPG 10732 kb)

Supplementary material Online Resource 5 Video clip from Experiment 2 showing an ‘irrational’ leg point trial (MPG 7612 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology and NeuroscienceUniversity of St AndrewsFifeScotland, UK

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