I’ve been meaning to write a post on animal intelligence for a couple of weeks, but have been sidetracked by work (and life). A few recent stories kicked off the motivation to write it, first and foremost this story on feline memories: “Feline memories found to be fleeting” (h/t babs67), which was originally linked to through Yahoo news.
It’s an interesting scientific study. The researchers wanted to know how a cat coordinates motion of front legs with back legs. The researchers first let a cat step over an obstacle with its front legs, then distracted it with food and determined how long they could distract a cat before it would forget to lift its back legs to clear the obstacle. It turns out that the magic number is somewhere around ten minutes, i.e. cats have a muscle memory of about ten minutes. However, when they distracted the cat before it had cleared the obstacle, so that it only had its visual memory to remind it of the barrier, “The main surprise was how short lasting the visual memory on its own was—just a few seconds when animals were stopped before their forelegs stepped over the obstacle.”
Two things about this study are interesting. The first is a gripe: the title of this particular press release, “Feline memories found to be fleeting,” suggests more than the research concluded. Hell, I was at a skydiving event a few months ago, and there was a tent we were hanging out in which had a metal bar ringing its base for support. Everybody tripped over that damn bar numerous times, even though we all knew it was there. I’m not sure that the results of the feline study would be much different if one did it for humans.
The second thing to point out about this study is that it illustrates how difficult it is to test and measure “animal intelligence” (which I am grouping “memory” into). One typically finds that studies assess characteristics so broad that the conclusions are suspect or so narrow that the conclusions don’t give you very much insight into the overall working of the animal’s brain (not that I’m criticizing this feline memory study at all; I’m just pointing out it’s hard to design experiments which give you a big picture view of an animal’s smarts). There’s a related problem with the animal subjects: tests which are specific enough to give quantitative results are often boring for the animals, while tests which might get the animals engaged (i.e. games) are loose enough that the results are ambiguous.
The second bit of animal intelligence news which came up recently was sad: the death of Alex the parrot. To quote the Wikipedia article on Alex, “he could identify fifty different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different,” and that he was learning “over” and “under”. Alex had a vocabulary of about 150 words, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said.” Irene Pepperberg, the researcher who worked with Alex for three decades, “reported that Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old human and had not reached his full potential by the time he died. She said that the bird had the emotional level of a human two-year-old at the time of his death.“
The phrase “bird-brain” is usually meant as an insult, because birds have very small heads and brains and seemingly couldn’t possibly have any significant amount of intelligence. Alex proved that human beings are still very ignorant of the intellectual capabilities of other species.
It’s worth noting here two very enjoyable books on animal intelligence, by Eugene Linden: The Parrot’s Lament and The Octopus and the Orangutan. The former book is titled in part because of the previously mentioned Alex. Neither book is scientific, or intended to be; rather, each book collects anecdotes of animals acting very, very smart. Are they really exerting brainpower, or are they just getting lucky?
I have a number of anecdotes to share as well. First, let me post a couple of videos from my recent trip to the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam. The first video is of a bison:
I never really thought of a bison as an animal that would engage in playful activity, but there’s really no other way to interpret its interactions with the tire.
The next video, of chimpanzees, is much more intriguing:
Here we have chimps in a zoo, using sticks as tools to get berries (?) which are out of reach of their cage. There’s also another fascinating display of intelligence in the video: the second chimp, who waits for the first to do all the work and then ‘mugs’ him for the prize.
Speaking of ‘mugging’, a few years ago I was in Tampa with a friend, and we had gotten ice cream cones and were wandering on the beach. Without warning, a seagull buzzed my friend’s head, causing her to drop her cone. Within a second, a dozen waiting gulls were picking at the ‘carcass’. This was clearly an organized robbery that the gulls had done many times before.
They’re also good at other types of theft, though, as the videos at this page will attest to…