The Rock Doc: Elephants’ recognition skills may be on point

MONDAY, NOV. 18, 2013

I don’t know the full heritage of my mutt from the pound, Buster Brown by name. Buster was listed as a “Lab mix” by the humane society, but my vet has said he is more of a German shepherd mix. We all can agree he’s a mongrel.

When he was young, there were a couple of occasions when Buster froze and seemed to point toward the wildlife we encountered as we ambled along the bottom of the Snake River canyon. It’s impressive when a young dog, full of wild amounts of energy, stops in his tracks and points. I don’t know how we bred that into some dogs, but it’s an impressive trick.

People, of course, are good at pointing. Babies learn to point to what they want quite early.

“If you don’t get that they’re drawing your attention to an object, they’ll get cross,” Richard W. Byrne recently told the New York Times. Byrne is a biologist at the University of St. Andrews.

Most animals don’t seem to understand pointing. The matter is fairly easy to test: You can put food into one of two identical containers, set them in front of an animal, and point to the one with the food in it. If the animal checks the containers at random (with a 50-50 split between the buckets) then it isn’t getting the point of the pointing.

Understanding pointing apparently takes some sophistication. Even chimpanzees, who are smart cookies in many ways, don’t “get it” when it comes to pointing.

Buster might be pleased to know that domesticated dogs do well on the pointing test. That’s right, dogs do better than chimps – the closest relatives to humans.

Recently, Byrne and graduate student Anna Smet published their results from doing the pointing test with elephants. As reported recently in the Times, Smet went to Zimbabwe, where a company called Wild Horizons gave her access to 11 elephants. She did the pointing test using fruit in buckets, pointing to the container with the food while standing between the two buckets.

It was easy to record which bucket the elephant first stuck its trunk in. The elephants picked the right bucket 67.5 percent of the time. That’s not bad – human babies score around 73 percent.

Smet didn’t document any learning on the part of the elephants. That is, the animals didn’t get better over time, learning that she was pointing to the bucket with the food. Buster, I am sure, would learn in any similar test – food really motivates him and he picks up on things around my house without formal instruction.

Everyone knows about dogs and the type of intelligence they display. But this research on elephants is new. It makes some investigators think elephants have a deeply social kind of intelligence.

There remains another question for elephant research. Do the giant pachyderms themselves ever point? In a herd of wild elephants, are there occasions to point, say with a long and handy trunk?

Stay tuned.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard universities. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

There are three comments on this story »