Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pointing proboscis

The new ways poachers find to kill elephants just for their tusks are heartbreaking and horrifying, especially considering the intelligence of these large creatures. Consider the testing recently conducted by evolutionary biologists Richard Byrne and Anna Smet of the University of St. Andrews on 11 African elephants. The "object-choice task," as it is called, has been performed on many species, which are rewarded with food for learning to follow the line of a human’s pointing. Wild animals don't do so well – chimpanzees struggle to understand – but even domesticated animals like dogs and horses show only mixed results. Elephants, however, didn't even need training to understand – they followed the pointing arm spontaneously! They seemed to do it naturally, whether they were captive-born or wild-born. The researchers speculate that because elephants are such social animals, they use their own appendages (DETAIL OF AFRICAN ELEPHANT TRUNK ABOVE) to communicate. “The most likely possibility is that they regularly interpret trunk gestures as pointing to places in space.

 

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