Stats Fact 3

Can an elephant really interpret human pointing?

elephants walking

Photo by skuarua

What’s the evidence?

You might have seen this study, by Anna Smet and Richard Byrne, in the news.  Captive African elephants were tested to see if they could interpret human pointing to find hidden food.  The elephants had to choose between two containers of food – so there was a 50% chance they would be right if they were guessing.

The elephants were tested with different ways of “pointing”, including the ones in this diagram:

human pointing

One way included only using the eyes (gaze only).  The experimenters also included a condition with no pointing at all. They called this “no point control”.

What were the results like?

The elephants did a number of trials with each different way of pointing, so the researchers worked out the percentage of times that an elephant was correct.  If elephants were guessing, the percentage correct would be 50%.
Our graph of the study results shows the mean percentage correct for the elephants for each type of pointing.  The lines from the squares are some more technical detail; they show uncertainty.


graph elephant results

What does the graph tells us?

The researchers interpreted this pattern of results to mean that the elephants understood the experimenter’s communicative intent.

How convincing is the evidence?

This looks like a good study.  It’s a bit more complicated that my description here, but you can check it out yourself, and even look at videos of the experiment. Here’s just a few of the reasons:

How does this compare to babies?

On average, elephants were correct 68% of the time when a whole arm ipsilateral point was used. (“Ipsilateral” means “on the same side of the body”.) The researchers tell us that one-year-old children get 73% right on average on this type of task.

What’s the theory?

The researchers described a couple of different explanations of why elephants might be able to interpret pointing as communication.