Elephants ‘understand human gesture’


In this brief clip of two of the trials, Professor Richard Byrne describes how the elephants got the point from the first test.

African elephants have demonstrated what appears to be an instinctive understanding of human gestures, according to UK scientists.

In a series of tests, researcher Ann Smet, of the University of St Andrews, offered the animals a choice between two identical buckets, then pointed at the one containing a hidden treat.

From the first trial, the elephants chose the correct bucket.

Animal keeper Rachel Melling describes the bond she feels with the elephants she works with and how they “respond to body language”.

The scientists worked with captive elephants at a lodge in Zimbabwe.

Prof Richard Byrne, a co-author on the research, said the elephants had been rescued from culling operations and trained for riding.

“They specifically train the elephants to respond to vocal cues. They don’t use any gestures at all,” said Prof Byrne.

“The idea is that the handler can walk behind the elephant and just tell it what to do with words.”

Despite this, the animals seemed to grasp the meaning of pointing from the outset. This makes them the only non-human animals to understand the gesture without being trained to do so.

In previous studies, Prof Byrne said, our closest primate cousins, the chimpanzees, proved to be “hopeless” at at similar task.

Ms Smet added that she had been impressed by the animals’ apparently innate understanding of the gesture.

“Of course we had hoped that the elephants would be able to learn to follow human pointing, or we wouldn’t have done the experiment in the first place,” she said.

“But it was really surprising that they didn’t seem to have to learn anything.

“It seems that understanding pointing is an ability elephants just possess naturally and they are cognitively much more like us than has been realised.”

Nature’s giants

  • African elephants are the largest living land animals
  • Until recently there was one species of elephant in Africa – but they are now classified as either forest or bush (or savannah) elephants
  • Forest elephants, as the name suggests, are found in equatorial forests and have straighter trunks and rounded ears
  • Bush elephants are more widespread, mostly south of the Sahara in a range of habitats including savannah, swamps and deserts

Prof Byrne said studying elephants helped build a map of part of the evolutionary tree that is very distant from humans.

“They’re so unrelated to us,” he told BBC News. “So if we find human-like abilities in an animal like an elephant, that hasn’t shared a common ancestor with people for more than 100 million years , we can be pretty sure that it’s evolved completely separately, by what’s called convergent evolution.”

The researchers said their findings might explain how elephants have successfully been tamed and have “historically had a close bond with humans, in spite of being potentially dangerous and unmanageable due to their great size”.

But the scientists added the results could be a hint that the animals gesture to one another in the wild with their “highly controllable trunks”.

Ms Smet told BBC News: “The next step [in our research] is to test whether when an elephant extends its trunk upwards and outwards – as they regularly do, such as when detecting a predator, this functions as a point.”

‘Star Trek’ Prototype Tractor Beam Developed By Scientists.


 

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It may still be a few years away from practical use, but scientists have created a real tractor beam, like the ones featured in the “Star TrekTV series and movies.

Simply put, this technology utilizes a beam of light to attract objects, according to theUniversity of St. Andrews in Scotland. In “Star Trek,” tractor beams were often used to pull spaceships and other objects closer to the focal point of the light source attached to another ship.

Researchers at St. Andrews and the Institute of Scientific Instruments, or ISI, in the Czech Republic have figured out a way of generating an optical field that can reverse the radiation pressure of light.

German astronomer Johannes Kepler noticed in 1619 that comet tails point away from the sun, a radiation force that the St. Andrews and ISI team hoped to reverse.

According to the BBC, Pavel Zemanek of ISI said, “The whole team have spent a number of years investigating various configurations of particles delivery by light. I am proud our results were recognised in this very competitive environment and I am looking forward to new experiments and applications. It is a very exciting time.”

So far, based on their research findings published in Nature Photonics, the team is able to move tiny particles, on a microscopic level.

Team leader Tomas Cizmar, of the St. Andrews School of Medicine, said the new technology has great potential.

“The practical applications could be very great, very exciting,” Cizmar told the BBC. “The tractor beam is very selective in the properties of the particles it acts on, so you could pick up specific particles in a mixture. Eventually, this could be used to separate white blood cells, for example.”

While the researchers hope this tractor beam technology will be useful in the medical field, they don’t anticipate it can ever be used to capture and haul large objects like spaceships.

“Unfortunately, there is a transfer of energy. On a microscopic scale, that is OK, but on a macro scale, it would cause huge problems,” said Cizmar.

“It would result in a massive amount of heating of an object, like a space shuttle. So trapping a spaceship is out of the question.”

Tractor beam concepts have been experimented with before.

In 2011, a NASA-funded study examined how special laser beams might be used to capture and gather sample materials on unmanned, robotic space missions,Space.com reported.

“Though a mainstay in science fiction, and ‘Star Trek’ in particular, laser-based trapping isn’t fanciful or beyond current technological know-how,” Paul Stysley of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said at the time.

And in 2012, New York University physicists David Ruffner and David Grier developed a way to use special lasers, called Bessel beams, to direct light in concentric circles at an object — albeit a 1.5-micrometer silica sphere — and the beams could then reconstruct themselves on opposite sides of the sphere, making it possible to pull the object back to the source of the beams.

The only problem with this theory is that, like the current tests by the scientists at St. Andrews and ISI, applying these techniques to move very large objects isn’t practical yet — the huge energy requirements to make it work would destroy the objects trying to be pulled.

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com

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