back to article Who here needs to explain things to ELEPHANTS?

Next time you're trying to convey an idea to an elephant, it may well help to simply point to things, according to a new study. This won't always work with other species - including our close relatives the great apes - but the brainy pachyderm will, erm, get the point straight away. "By showing that African elephants …


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  1. Tom 35

    Something to point with?

    Unlike most animals both humans and elephants have something to point with.

    1. User McUser

      Re: Something to point with?

      Well, the domestic dog understands pointing despite lacking anything with which to point.

      Wolves do not possess this skill; it's believed that humans selected for this ability, intentionally or otherwise, when domesticating wolves into dogs.

      1. JeevesMkII

        Re: Something to point with?

        Dogs don't understand pointing. Point at something and a dog looks at your finger, not the object.

        1. Mephistro Silver badge

          Re: Something to point with? (@ JeevesMkII)

          "Point at something and a dog looks at your finger, not the object."

          The trick is in the movement of your hand. If you move your hand in the direction of the object you are pointing to, the dog will probably get the message. I think the dog interprets the movement as if something was being thrown, and searches for objects along the trajectory.

        2. I like noodles

          Re: Something to point with?

          Dogs don't understand pointing. Point at something and a dog looks at your finger, not the object.

          Umm, so do you. You wouldn't know where it was pointing otherwise.

        3. Monty Burns

          Re: Something to point with?

          "Dogs don't understand pointing. Point at something and a dog looks at your finger, not the object."

          Maybe YOUR dog Jeeves but my black lab understands perfectly. I can point behind him and he will turn around, I can point to either side and he will look that way (not at my finger).

          1. Def Silver badge

            Re: black lab

            Your black lab is clearly smarter than my yellow one then.

            The only way I can get her to look at something is to stick sausages (or anything remotely edible) in it and liberally cover it in Pâté.

        4. John H Woods Silver badge


          "dogs look at your finger" --- this is only true of dogs that are thick or untrained. Ever met an assistance dog, a police dog or a military dog?

          Even our dog understands pointing, "get that over there". etc. She understands that "hide" means go out of the room till I say "seek" and she understands "warmer" and "colder" when she's searching. Her expertise is food words -- she knows about 20 including "kitchen" and she knows that the tune "tasty, tasty, very very tasty" [Cockney Waiters] means that she's going to get some bran flakes.

          My parents dog understood "seek [noun]" for about 30 items, including 5 people. he understood how to play cricket (sit at leg off, ignore ball when thrown by bowler, fetch - or try to catch -- ball if hit by batsman and return it to bowler). He understood "not that one, get the other one" whether it was remote controls or shoes. He understood that if you pointed at him and said "bang" he should roll over, groan and lie still.

          1. Woodgar

            @ John H Woods - Trained Dogs

            I think that was the point of the article, that the elephants knew what pointing was without needing to be trained, whilst most other animals, including dogs, have no idea what it means and will look at your finger rather than what you want them to look at.

            1. NomNomNom

              Re: @ John H Woods - Trained Dogs

              well I've seen it all now. an argument over whose dog is better at pointing

            2. peyton?

              Re: @ John H Woods - Trained Dogs

              I can't be arsed to train my dog to do anything, but he's figure out pointing on his own. It may be a learned behavior from being around me, but likewise, I'm guessing these elephants aren't straight from the wilderness, and have been around humans for some length of time.

              Also, when he wants to go out, he looks at me, then quickly points towards the door in what I can only described as a "get your ass over here and let me out" motion. Definitely not something I trained him to do.

      2. Mephistro Silver badge

        Re: Something to point with?

        Dogs are also able of pointing. When some object fell inadvertently from our pockets, our Irish setter would point at it, and nobody had taught him that trick. He also used to turn on the TV whenever it pleased him, and sometimes the lights in the room.

        And sorry for stating the obvious, but dogs can point with one of their forelimbs.

        1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

          Re: Something to point with?

          That is different - the dogs are pointing at, not you pointing at and the dog groking what you want.

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  3. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

    So does that mean they might enjoy magic tricks?

    Observe this simple salt cellar ... observe this napkin.

    So would the pachyderms "get it?" Maybe the boffins could do a follow-up experiment?

  4. Johnny Canuck

    Perhaps a good way to distract a charging rogue elephant. Point emphatically in any direction that doesn't lead to you while shouting "Hey elephant! Look! Look over there!". Then madly dash in the other direction.

  5. Herby

    The nose knows!!

    What everybody should know!!

  6. frank ly

    Pointer dogs?

    Are pointer dogs 'natural pointers' or do they have to be trained to do it? If you consider a dog's/wolf's front legs, they could use them for pointing quite easily, if they really wanted to.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Pointer dogs?

      Pointer dogs point themselves by stopping and 'pointing' with their muzzle in the direction of their prey, not in response to a Human pointing for them. Pointer dogs point and Humans look. The opposite of what is discussed in the article.

    2. Charles Manning

      Diffrent strokes for different dogs

      Pointer dogs are natural pointers (well, natural to the extent they have been genetically selected for the task).

      That is why you choose different breeds for different hunting purposes.

      As an example, a beagle is good at tracking and flushing, but tend to be very excitable so it is hopeless for pointing or getting it to sit still until commanded (so they are crap retrievers). Yes, you probably could train one to point or retrieve but that would be an uphill battle relative to other breeds.

      The same applies to sheep dogs. Different dogs have different skills. Talk to shepherds and you will hear terminology like "heading dog", "eye dog", "huntaway" etc.

  7. gerdesj Silver badge

    Dogs can do it too

    This was in an article in New Scientist recently. Good to see the web can keep up with a paper magazine.

    There are very few species that understand pointing. Not sure it's a particularly good measure for "intelligence". I think self recognition of a mirror image is rather better - dogs can, cats can't (try it - hilarious)



  8. Graham Marsden
    Paris Hilton

    "an ancient African tradiation of animals"

    Tradiation? What happened to the "send corrections" button? (Or weren't enough people using it??)

    1. Gavin King

      Re: "an ancient African tradiation of animals"

      The "send corrections" button is now at the top of the comments page: look upwards.

      It's a little odd, but for some reason I missed it too, even though it is just about the first thing you see when you come to comment.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Animal responses to pointing

    My cat now understands "the point". She is now very old, but over the years have taught

    her to not look at the finger, but to where we are pointing, eg to a treat or toy etc. She still doesn't get it right all the time but her response indicates that she indeed is reacting to a pointing finger. Sometimes in a session she will focus on the finger then it is almost like

    you can see the thought processes warming up as she then turns around and goes to the object. I have also notes some bird species such as magpies are also capable of "getting the point", but it varies with the individual

    1. Gray Ham

      Re: Animal responses to pointing

      Australian magpies can certainly point. They also know it's rude, but they don't care.

      1. Wzrd1

        Re: Animal responses to pointing

        The raven also points and works together to steal the food of other creatures.

  10. Rol Silver badge

    I guess trying this with a wild elephant wouldn't be wise, however it would be a better test of the hypothesis, as clearly an elephant that is used to being around humans would have grasped the concept long ago.

    I actually cannot think of any other way of manoeuvring several ton of beast without waving and pointing in the general direction of where I want them to go, with a hope they'll eventually work out I'm not a Brit trying to attract the attention of a passing French waiter to the fact my wine glass is empty.

    1. I like noodles

      A fundamental amateur error RoI. When in France, wine should only be entertained by the litre carafe. I recommend one per seat (whether occupied or not)

  11. Siberian Hamster

    I don't need no stinkin' title!

    I think they need to rethink their methodology and review their footage. Her constant head turning towards the bucket is both a bigger visual cue than a static arm and also it is well documented that pack animals will look in the direction another pack member is 'concentrating' on. call themselves scientists? Pah!!!

    1. Wzrd1

      Re: I don't need no stinkin' title!

      Is not that moving gaze also a point?

      So, the animal quickly learned to associate the finer pointing of the arm with the pointed gaze.

      1. John H Woods Silver badge

        Re: I don't need no stinkin' title!

        Interesting point about moving gaze. Horses are particularly prone to looking at things that their riders or handlers look at. I've also once seen it the other way round: we had a pony that never spooked at anything - unless you were carrying a sandwich or sausage roll. She'd stand or walk quietly for an unpredictable period, and then suddenly snap her head to one side - if you followed her gaze she'd use that split second to grab your lunch.

    2. mitch 2

      Re: I don't need no stinkin' title!

      Maybe to an elephant the arm is like a trunk which is normally on the front of the animal. So from the elephant's perspective it may seem as if she is paying attention to that bucket because the large scale body language inicates she is facing it. The fact that she is standing facing forward may not be especially relevant.

  12. MajorTom


    My retriever not only points her nose at things she wants us to know about, she uses her eyes to point to what she wants. Look at the food item she wants, look at us, roll her eyes back at the snack... until we get the point.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Even sharks!

    Who hasn't heard of a white pointer?

    [quickly runs away....]

  14. lawndart


    It all starts with the elephants passing information between each other by pointing at objects.

    It rapidly becomes trunk-signal-coordinated predator stomping commando raids.

    It ends with planetary invasions after asteroid bombardment.

  15. NomNomNom

    it's like that saying, you can point a horse to water but you cant make it go in the water

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yer wot?

    "an ancient African tradiation of animals" - What is a tradiation please?

    And if you intended to type "tradition", I'm still not sure what you think you mean.

  17. Mike Rodgers

    But I wonder, she continually *looked* over at the bucket, maybe the elephant was watching her eyes, where she was looking, rather than where she was pointing.

    Or, maybe it just "looked" that way to me. (hahaha, i crack myself up!)

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