Sunday, October 27, 2013

Animals That Understand Pointing

When our first Great Dane was young, she loved to chase squirrels up trees. She never caught a squirrel - Great Danes aren't that quick. But she loved the chase.
One day when we were walking in the woods, we saw a squirrel in the distance, a squirrel our dog hadn't noticed. One of us put our hands on either side of our dog's head and pointed her head in the direction of the squirrel. She immediately saw it, ran after it and sent yet another furry creature into the high branches.
From that moment on, we could turn her head toward anything and she understood that there was something interesting to see. Beyond simply holding her head, we could bend down so that our arm was next to her head and point. She understood that looking down our arm was the same as when we physically turned her head.
She would hold still, looking with great focus, until she figured out whatever it was we wanted to show her. Birds and airplanes became as interesting as squirrels, all because she understood that we wanted her to notice them.
It turns out that this is a big deal in the world of people who study animal cognition. The reason is that a simple pointing gesture, understood by people from the time they are babies, and understood by dogs who've been trained to understand pointing, is not understood by most animals. Even Chimpanzees don't get pointing. It seems so basic, yet our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are oblivious to pointing.
Enter the elephants!

We've known for a long time that elephants are really smart, surpassing dogs in self-awareness (they recognize themselves in mirrors, whereas dogs think they are seeing another dog). Now it turns out that elephants understand pointing.
A recent study showed that elephants, even young elephants get pointing.
The study had lots of details, but suffice to say that if you give an elephant a treat, then point at a bucket that contains another treat - a bucket sitting among other empty buckets - the elephant will follow your point and go to the bucket with the treat. No training required. Here's the story from NPR.
The scientists are now wondering if elephants point, using their trunks, perhaps, to point out important things like food or water or a group of lions. Maybe we've simply never noticed.
We train dozens of different kinds of animals to do complicated tasks, from seeing-eye service dogs to dolphins that find underwater mines. Maybe elephants are even smarter.
Those of you who read my books know that Jennifer Salazar, McKenna's wealthy young patron, is studying elephants and looking for ways to help them survive in a world full of poachers. Maybe a future book will have something about elephants and their amazing intelligence!
Hmmm, I wonder how Spot would react to an elephant. Probably, an elephant would be like a giant horse, an intriguing source of new scents, a curiosity, a creature that is non-threatening yet something to be careful around. Could be a fun scene to write...

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