National Geographic

Pointing At the Minds of Elephants: My Column This Week For the New York Times

Earlier this year, I wrote about a simple way to probe the mind of a dog: point to something and see if the dog understands your intent. Dogs generally do, and that’s remarkable. Many species, including our closest ape relatives, do a bad job of interpreting a pointed hand. This week in my “Matter” column for the New York Times, I look at a new study that suggests we add another species to the elite list of animals that understand pointing: elephants. Do elephants learn the meaning of pointing from humans? Or do these social behemoths use their trunks to point things out to each other?

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  1. Reno Hates Me
    October 11, 2013

    I tweeted back to you yesterday about the work of Josh Plotnik on Asian elephants and pointing. Thank you for tweeting me back. [twitter is not the best place for a detailed discussion].

    I worked with Josh and his Asian elephants (admittedly briefly) and it was very clear to me that his elephants had no idea what pointing meant. The African elephants on the other hand seem to understand. It will be very interesting to see what develops in the next few years – is this a difference due to habitat (open savanna vs forested areas?) or social structure? or something else?

    Thanks for posting about this fascinating topic.

    [CZ: Thanks for the tweet and comment. (Here's Plotnik's paper.) I discussed this conflict with Plotnik and the authors of the new study. It might come down to species differences, or the different ways the elephants were exposed over their lives to humans, or perhaps even the experimental design.]

  2. Susan Perez
    October 15, 2013

    It is interesting that as a person with Alzheimer’s disease regresses, he or she loses the ability to understand pointing and will only look at the end of the hand extended.

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