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Animal Intelligence

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Are animals as smart, or as dumb, as we think they are? Does my dog only think of eating, sleeping and chasing squirrels? Does my girlfriend's cat really have the capacity to plot my accidental death? Are cows just walking hamburgers and pigeons intent on world domination? Opinions vary on the answers to these questions. But where do we get our opinions on animal intelligence? Our understanding of, and feelings for and against different species seem to be linked to our cultural and personal prejudices. We have compassion for those closely related to us. Mammals are viewed smarter than birds and reptiles, while we think of less related species, like insects, as non-thinking machines. The reality is intelligence is a complex concept, difficult to define and hard not to base around our own abilities.

Measuring intelligence is even more difficult. So how are researchers changing their approach to measuring animal intelligence? Tool-use is a form of intelligence long thought to be exclusive to humans. Animal Intelligence Under-rated By Humans, Researchers Say. Dec 05, 2013 06:09 AM EST For many millennia, we humans have considered ourselves superior, primarily due to our large brains and our ability to reason. However, we might not be as smart as we think. Researchers from Australia point out that there are different kinds of geniuses out there, some even better than us. Dolphins can communicate via echolation, while hyenas use smell-based networking sites. Dr Arthur Saniotis, Visiting Research Fellow with the University's School of Medical Sciences says that the concept of "ad nauseam", which means humans are exceptional by virtue and are "the most intelligent species on Earth" might not be true and that animals are intelligent in their own unique ways.

The idea that humans are exceptional probably emerged about 10,000 years back when humans decided to take up farming. "The belief of human cognitive superiority became entrenched in human philosophy and sciences. . © 2015 All rights reserved. What Animals Teach Us About Measuring Intelligence. My dog Maebe gets very excited whenever my roommate comes home. Due to her heightened sense of smell, she starts her happy dance 30 seconds before the door actually opens, giving me time to sneak the bag of chips that he bought back into the cupboard. Does such olfactory aptitude mean she’s a genius, on par with master sommeliers? In the midst of her happy dance, she sometimes chases her tail. When she’s feeling especially nifty, she’ll catch and proceed to chew on it like it’s a squeak-toy. Intelligence is notoriously difficult to measure. The most famous anecdote is that of Rico the dog.

Similarly fascinating individuals exist across species. When studying animal intelligence, scientists typically analyze a subject’s self-control, self-awareness, and memory. The most popular intelligence-assessment tools among such researchers today are the "pointing test" and the "mirror test. " The "mirror test" checks for self-awareness. And even when there’s progress, it’s often discredited.

Animal Minds. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi In 1977 Irene Pepperberg, a recent graduate of Harvard University, did something very bold. At a time when animals still were considered automatons, she set out to find what was on another creature’s mind by talking to it. She brought a one-year-old African gray parrot she named Alex into her lab to teach him to reproduce the sounds of the English language. “I thought if he learned to communicate, I could ask him questions about how he sees the world.” When Pepperberg began her dialogue with Alex, who died last September at the age of 31, many scientists believed animals were incapable of any thought. They were simply machines, robots programmed to react to stimuli but lacking the ability to think or feel.

“That’s why I started my studies with Alex,” Pepperberg said. Thirty years after the Alex studies began, Pepperberg and a changing collection of assistants were still giving him English lessons. Pepperberg bought Alex in a Chicago pet store. “Ssse... won! Animal Intelligence. “It seems to me that every time we humans announce that here is the thing that makes us unique—our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language—some other species comes along to snatch it away. If modesty were a human trait, we’d have learned to be more cautious over the years.”

That’s a quote I really like from We are all Completely Beside Ourselves, a novel by Karen Joy Fowler. We see this a lot in science news—headlines about some amazing human-like feat that another creature can perform. Heck, I write about it all the time (for example, see last week’s post about facial recognition in paper wasps). And intelligence seems to take the cake.

Succumbing to peer pressure and my boss’s desire to boost numbers for Science Today, today I mine recent headlines on animal intelligence, and there have been many in the past few weeks. Show some self-control! Social ravens Would ravens do well on Facebook? If Peyton Manning were a bird… Perhaps he would be the African drongo. Not so smart? This is How You Study The Evolution of Animal Intelligence. There are many scientists who study the mental abilities of animals. As intelligent animals ourselves, we’re keen to learn whether other species share our skills, and how our vaunted smarts evolved. We see study after study about whether chimpanzees care about fairness, whether pigeons outsmart humans at a classic maths problem, whether cuttlefish can remember where, what and when, or whether (and how) parrots and crows use tools, But animals are hard to work with. You need to design tests that objectively assess their mental skills without raising the spectre of anthropomorphism, and you need to carefully train them to perform those tests.

These problems mean that the study of animal intelligence is rich but piecemeal. Evan MacLean, Brian Hare, and Charles Nunn from Duke University have had enough. Chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, marmosets, lemurs, squirrels, dogs, elephants, pigeons, parrots and more tried their hands (or trunks or beaks or snouts) at the same two tasks. A New Frontier in Animal Intelligence. Santino was a misanthrope with a habit of pelting tourists with rocks. As his reputation for mischief grew, he had to devise increasingly clever ways to ambush his wary victims. Santino learned to stash his rocks just out of sight and casually stand just a few feet from them in order to throw off suspicion.

At the very moment that passersby were fooled into thinking that he meant them no harm, he grabbed his hidden projectiles and launched his attack. Santino was displaying an ability to learn from his past experiences and plan for future scenarios. This has long been a hallmark of human intelligence. But a recently published review paper by the psychologist Thomas Zentall from the University of Kentucky argues that this complex ability should no longer be considered unique to humans. Santino, you see, is not human. Santino is one of a handful of animals that scientists believe are showing a complex cognitive ability called episodic memory.

10 Surprising Facts About Animal Intelligence.