Elephants know their audience

Wednesday 9 July 2014


Scientists at the University of St Andrews have discovered that elephants adjust their signals according to whether their intended audience can see them.

The new study, published in Royal Society Journal Biology Letters today (Wednesday July 9, 2014), found that captive African elephants take into account the visual perspective of the person they are signalling to when they gesture with their head and trunk.

The researchers, Anna Smet and Professor Richard Byrne from the University’s School of Psychology and Neuroscience, were surprised by the findings given that most species don’t take account of their audience and signal regardless of whether they can see or hear them.

Graduate student Anna Smet explained:

“Animal communication is most often like the action of traffic lights: traffic lights signal important information effectively, but are not influenced by drivers who use the signals. In a similar way most species, when calling or gesturing, do so without monitoring their audience.

“Human communication is a complete contrast, as humans automatically take note of other people’s perspectives. We adjust our behaviour to make our communication more effective and minimise unnecessary signals. For example, a gesture like waving makes sense when we are greeting someone who is behind a closed glass window, but not when that person is on the end of a long-distance telephone call.”

Man’s closest living relatives, the great apes, have also been found to take into account whether an audience can see them or not when they gesture – offering a clue to the evolutionary origins of the ability to communicate ‘intentionally’. However elephants are only distantly related to humans.

What elephants share with humans is that they live in an intricate social network in which support, empathy and help for others are critical for survival. This type of society is likely to depend on effective communication and understanding between individual members.

The St Andrews’ researchers worked with a group of elephants who give rides to tourists in Zimbabwe. Their study found that not only did the elephants use human face- and body-orientation as indicators of visual attention, but their pattern of responding matched that of the great apes. When the human experimenter stood with her body facing towards, or sideways from, the elephants signalled more when her face was oriented towards them compared to when it was turned away. However when the experimenter stood with her body facing away from the elephants they signalled very little, regardless of the orientation of her face.

Professor Richard Byrne Said:

“The similarity between the results for the elephants, and those obtained for the great apes may indicate that the same mental processes are responsible for this pattern of behaviour in very distantly related species.

“Elephants regularly signal visually in the wild, and these new results suggest that under natural conditions elephants will also be making judgements about whether others are paying attention to them when deciding when to signal. The next step in understanding the communication system of these fascinating, endangered animals will be to discover what they do if their target audience doesn’t react in the way they intend by their gesturing: do they switch from visual to vocal signalling, or attract the other’s attention and then repeat the gesture, or persist in some other way?”



Citation: Biol. Lett.20140428. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2014.0428

The researchers are available for interview:

Professor Richard Byrne: tel: 01334 462051 or email [email protected]

Anna Smet: tel. 01334 463040 or email [email protected]

Note to Picture / New Media Editors

Images of elephants are available from the Press Office on 01334 462 108 or email [email protected]


Issued by the Press Office at the University of St Andrews, contactable on [email protected] or 01334 462 108.

Category Research

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