Elephants Understand Humans

In numerous tests that researchers had been putting on, African elephants have been showing, what seems to be, an inborn understanding of human gestures, according to scientists located in the United Kingdom.

Scientist Ann Smet, located at a university in the UK, gave the animals their pick between two identical buckets, and then she pointed at the one which held a concealed treat. Starting from the very first trial, the animals were able to pick the right bucket. These results have been printed in the journal Current Biology.

Elephant keeper Rachel Melling says the bond she has with the animals she works with and how they are able to respond to the body language of humans, is amazing. They are working with elephants that were in captivity at a Zimbabwe lodge where Professor Richard Byrne, also a researcher on the project, said the elephants have been saved from scrapping operations and are being trained for riding.

The animals seem to know what the meaning of pointing to objects means from the beginning of training. This makes them the only non-human animals to understand the signal without ever being trained to know this.

In earlier studies, Byrne said, chimpanzees had proved to be totally hopeless at learning comparable tasks.

Smet adds that she has been awe-struck by the elephant’s seemingly inborn understanding of the movement and she says that they seem to naturally possess the ability to understand what pointing means.

The African elephants, which are in the study, use to be considered just one species but now researches classify them as either bush (savannah) or forest elephants.

The bush elephants are located more to the south of the Sahara in a range of habitats which include swamps, deserts, and savannahs, where the forest elephants can be discovered more near the equator in the forests there. They have trunks which are straighter and more round ears.

Byrne state that by studying the elephants they can help make a map and build up more of an evolutionary tree, which is very different from human beings.

He explains how elephants are not related to people in any way. So, if any similar human type abilities are found in elephants, and the species has not had any shared ancestor with humans for over 100 million years, then scientists can be sure that it was evolved totally separately, by what is known as convergent evolution.

The researchers said their conclusions might clarify how elephants have effectively been tamed and have had a close connection with human beings throughout history, even though they have always had the potential to be very dangerous and uncontrollable, due to their huge size.

The scientists also stated the results might be a clue that the animals signal to each other in the wild with their elephant trunks. Smet says that next in their research is to examine when an elephant stretches its trunk up and/or out. They do this often when they sense a predator. This is to see if they use their trunks as warnings to other elephants about the danger around. If they do do this, it could help explain how elephants are understanding humans the way they do.


Written by: Kimberly Ruble

BBC News


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