A comparative cognition perspective on the production and use of visual signals by African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana)
MetadataShow full item record
Elephants’ complex societies, well-developed communication systems, evolutionary history and close working relationship with humans make them an important species for studies of cognition but research on elephant cognition is sparse. In this thesis I aim to illuminate the social cognition involved in the interpretation and production of visual signals by African elephants (Loxodonta africana). My results are intended to contribute to the cross-species literature on social cognition and help to elucidate wild elephant social behaviour. I studied captive elephants, housed at an elephant-back safari company in Victoria Falls, and wild elephants in Hwange National Park, both in Zimbabwe. Wild elephants display a vast array of postures, actions and signals. I found that elephants recognise visual attentiveness in others when they signal silently, producing more signals when their audience can see them, and using the body and face orientation of an audience to judge their attention. When responding to typically human visual signals, elephants immediately responded correctly to deictic gestures, including variants of pointing that they were unlikely to have already experienced. These results indicate elephants’ astonishing sensitivity to even subtle social cues. I found no indication that elephants reason about mental states such as false beliefs, or rationality; however, limitations of the experimental design meant I was unlikely to find such an ability even if it is present in elephants. Furthermore, I discovered that elephants have a form of referential indication in their natural communication in the wild. Elephants match their direction of attention with a type of trunk action produced by a group member. Attending to human-like signals, and interpreting them as communicative is an advantage for any animal working with humans and that ability might explain the choice of species that are ancestors of today’s domestic animals.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2018-08-23
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Electronic copy restricted until 23rd August 2018, pending formal approval
Items in the St Andrews Research Repository are protected by copyright, with all rights reserved, unless otherwise indicated.