Animal Minds
February 29, 2008 9:55 PM   Subscribe

I just finished reading the article in National Geographic at dinner not ten minutes ago and here is this fantastic post! The second link was awesome! "Are you allowed to say pee on the web"? LOL
Great job Homunculus!
posted by HappyHippo at 10:14 PM on February 29, 2008

"Wanna go tree," Alex said in a tiny voice.
Alex had lived his entire life in captivity, but he knew that beyond the lab's door, there was a hallway and a tall window framing a leafy elm tree. He liked to see the tree, so Pepperberg put her hand out for him to climb aboard. She walked him down the hall into the tree's green light.

"Good boy! Good birdie," Alex said, bobbing on her hand.

"Yes, you're a good boy. You're a good birdie." And she kissed his feathered head.

He was a good birdie until the end, and Pepperberg was happy to report that when he died he had finally mastered "seven."

Oh, this made me cry.
posted by oflinkey at 10:17 PM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Just think of all the hilarious slapstick movies with animal leads we'll be able to make once we can more successfully communicate with animals. I want to see Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, and Mr. Speed Bump the prarie dog fighting crime together.
posted by XMLicious at 10:41 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

They still go in my belly in the end.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 10:50 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I want to see Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, and Mr. Speed Bump the prarie dog fighting crime together.

You say that now, but wait until the giraffe-version of Judy Garland is blundering down La Cienega with lipstick on its teeth and dressed in a merry widow, frothed out on dolls and taking out mailboxes.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 10:56 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was watching unbeatable banzuke today and I thought it would be awesome to see chimps do a handwalk course, I still do actually.
posted by MNDZ at 10:57 PM on February 29, 2008

As I was reading this article one of my dogs started barking. I assumed that she was just barking at something that had gone by outside the house so I told her loudly to knock it off. She can usually tell when a person is walking by outside, but sometimes she'll overreact to cars or things because she's bored and really enjoys acting fierce. Then again, she never barks this late at night, I thought. This time she went straight back to barking again despite my warning, and I realized once I stopped to listen that this wasn't her "there is someone suspicious outside" bark, instead it was her "I need you to open a door for me" bark. I know this one pretty well because it's the same tone she uses when she's pissed off and wants to be let out of her kennel.

Finally I got up and opened the front blinds for her, still not sure what she wanted. Usually she'll jump up to the windowsill, see that the coast is clear, and only then stop barking, but this time she just gave me that look like "what are you, stupid?" and then looked at the back door pointedly. Finally I caught on and went to check. Sure enough, there was my other dog who was stuck outside looking cold. He loves the snow, so he'd darted through the door behind me when I'd taken out some trash earlier and I hadn't noticed, but he's exceptionally dumb and will only pound on the door with his paws instead of barking to be let in.

I'm sure all dog owners have stories like this, where a dog can show concern, empathy, and initiative all in one go. These studies are interesting, make me go Awwww and sniffle a little, but overall are not terribly surprising. There is no real doubt that our language rubs off on the animals we keep, the thing I'm truly curious about is how much of their language do they teach us in return?
posted by CheshireCat at 11:12 PM on February 29, 2008 [5 favorites]

Could you imagine being eaten by a fish? A motherfucken human. Being eaten by a... FISH! What an embarrassing way to go.

I reckon I'm gonna get eaten by a fish.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:16 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Loved the way that photographer talked about the different animals, using a first name for each one.

Chimp gets nut out of clear glass tube.

Of course animals have minds of their own. It's always astounded me when I've met people who didn't think so or comprehend that animals are incredibly smart.

Just learned that the name "Chameleon" means "earth lion" and is derived from the Greek words chamai (on the ground, on the earth) and leon (lion). The other day I happened on this image of an upset chameleon in the Wikipedia entry. Apparently all chameleon species are able to change their skin color. Changing color is an expression of the physical and physiological condition of the lizard. The color also plays a part in communication and an expression of their emotions.

The photograph seemed to capture something of the character of this particular animal and I wanted to share it here.
posted by nickyskye at 11:46 PM on February 29, 2008

From the first link:
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.

Oh brother. It just goes to show scientists can be just as stupid as anyone else.
posted by JHarris at 2:29 AM on March 1, 2008

Hm, to add further, I've found myself thinking this way:

1. What must human behavior look like to an animal that doesn't understand it? Maybe... it would look oddly purposeful, but they would not be able to determine the purpose. It would seem curious to them, maybe funny, or just odd. They might think the human was stupid.

2. There are different kinds of intelligence. All of the kinds we humans know about arise directly from personal experience. Human beings are the only really intelligent creatures we know.

3. Is it possible that some animals have types of intelligence that humans do not? I don't mean instinctual behavior of which we don't know the purpose, but actual thought processes that operate along lines we don't understand. What would that look like to us? Would it be along the lines of how the animals in 1. would see us?
posted by JHarris at 2:44 AM on March 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Animals think they're pretty smart: shit on the ground, see in the dark.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:48 AM on March 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's also interesting to see what animals can't do. For instance, border collies are among the smartest of all dogs, but they simply can't figure out what I saw referred to as a 'two-string problem'... which I believe requires the dog to pull on two strings at once to get a treat. They can pull on one or the other, but they are, apparently, simply incapable of learning that they need to pull both strings at the same time.

Corvids (crow family), on the other hand, are perfectly capable of figuring this one out.
posted by Malor at 3:08 AM on March 1, 2008

Oh, I've posted this before, but the old links don't work anymore. Check out this video about crows in Japan. They use the traffic system as a tool to crack nuts. They hang out on powerlines, drop nuts into traffic, and wait for them to get squashed by a passing car.

Once one does, they fly down to the sidewalk, wait for the light to turn, and hop into the crosswalk right alongside the humans to get their nut.

This floored me when I first saw it. I know CHILDREN that aren't that smart.
posted by Malor at 3:11 AM on March 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Animals are smarter than you think."

Maybe, but most of 'em still lack the opposable thumb.
posted by clearly at 3:40 AM on March 1, 2008

Reading "Jerry Was a Man" by Robert A. Heinlein when I was a kid started me wondering what it takes to be considered human. Watching the "Ape Genius" show again made me wonder how long we can not treat some of the creatures as human.

But considering how humans treat other humans, this might not be that big a positive step.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 5:28 AM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm more interested in when they'll begin considering us to be smart.
posted by regicide is good for you at 6:29 AM on March 1, 2008

This video of Alex brings a tear to the eye. He knows the difference between corn on the cob ("want soft corn") and cracked corn, and also tells his trainer to pick up the corn off the floor.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:25 AM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Great, not that we have figured out the animals are not as smart as people, but smarter than we expected, it's just a matter of time before they start swelling the ranks of middle management.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:36 AM on March 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oriole, that did bring a tear to my eye. I had read about Alex, but in watching him with Dr. Pepperberg, you could tell that she loved him. How many key experimental animals were loved?

"If you were a man," Pepperberg said, after noting Alex's aloofness toward me, "he'd be on your shoulder in a second, barfing cashews in your ear."

Yep, that's a parrot for you.

Maybe in ten million years, bird people will produce bird documentaries for bird public television about what bird scientists believe happened to all the hominid species.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:51 AM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I do often wonder how much verbal communication is going on with many of the smarter critters. Its so common for parrots in captivity to learn to talk I can't imaging that they aren't just seeking out the void of communication they'd have in the wild. But it seems like most scientific findings insist there is no language there non-human animals. No identifiable "words", per say. Yet when humans introduce language, suddenly we can communicate, on some level, with these animals.

I find it hard to believe that interaction with humans would inspire an otherwise dumb animal to speak (regardless of the level of training). It seems much more plausible to me that they're trying to bridge a gap with a perceived member of their social group, so some broken communication is bridged.

Or maybe not.

I have often wondered, though, if we taught a bunch of parrots to speak, then successfully released them into the wild, would they retain that skill? Would they teach others to speak? Would you find yourself walking through the forest one day and hear; "Hey! a human! Shut up! No you shut up! Keep quiet, it'll hear us! Did you guys see the human down there? Sssh! Oooh, look at this juicy fig! There are more over here. Didn't you hear? Shut up! Did someone say figs? No. Be quiet. Did you say there was a human eating the figs? Shut up!"
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:15 AM on March 1, 2008

cats talk amongst themselves all the time; they just need a translator.
posted by desjardins at 10:25 AM on March 1, 2008

Animals are smarter than we think... or is it that human "intelligence" is dumber than we think?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:39 AM on March 1, 2008

I read once someone theorizing consciousness, however small, might be a more efficient use of brain space than any other way of getting intelligence.
posted by atchafalaya at 12:35 PM on March 1, 2008

Under Pepperberg's patient tutelage, Alex learned how to use his vocal tract to imitate almost one hundred English words, including the sounds for all of these foods, although he calls an apple a "banerry."

"Apples taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up that word for them," Pepperberg said.

If Alex really figured out how to recombine parts of two words to echo two aspects of unrelated fruits evident in a third, that's an astonishing degree of verbal intelligence for an animal that had once been thought merely to be an accomplished mimic.

...Alex, who died last September at the age of 31,...

That's a bit saddening, considering that the Wikipedia page says that the lifespans of African Greys like Alex can easily be double that.
posted by pax digita at 12:56 PM on March 1, 2008

We're living in an exciting time.

One development that I don't love about the past twenty years in dog training is how enamored some trainers are with Behaviorism. It's great that we're using more positive methods now, but some folks seem to really want to treat dogs like input/output devices. They call dogs "lemon brains" because that's about the amount of grey matter that domestic dogs carry around in their noggins. But size doesn't matter, and those lemon-sized brains are complex.

When we try to guess what they're thinking, we're often dead wrong, but it's nice to see the scientific community finally come 'round to what us animal lovers have always known: they're thinking something.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 3:32 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Humans may be smart, but knowing we're smart is just another trick we've developed (via development of nuanced language) that's lasted because it makes us all feel self-important and driven to reproduce. Animals are keepin' it real. I often wonder how stressed out or not a dolphin, an owl, or a bee is. (That's my too-hastily thought-out and typed encapsulation of the biological world thankyewg'night!.)
posted by not_on_display at 3:45 PM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

One development that I don't love about the past twenty years in dog training is how enamored some trainers are with Behaviorism.

That's because behavioral training methods work. Despite Behaviorism being a bit silly philosophically, the majority of experiments on animal behavior in neuroscience and psychology use methods developed by Skinner and his disciples. As a scientific methodology they are very sound.

That article was ok, but didn't have much new information. The most interesting part was about whether or not corvids have a sense of time. I think some of the researchers are really pushing their interpretations of the experiments. Just because an animal sees a picture of something and then can go find that thing, it doesn't mean that the animal understands that the picture is a representation of the thing. It just means that it can tell that the picture and the thing look the same.
posted by afu at 10:39 PM on March 1, 2008

I'm convinced modern humans have vastly underestimated the intelligence of animals. I'm also convinced primitive humans had a much clearer understanding of animal intelligence. Ravens have been observed leading wolves to injured prey in Alaska and Yellowstone. Some observers believe brown bears' intelligence may rival that of the great apes. And if you've ever looked into the eyes of a cuttlefish you feel like you should get him a library card. One thing seems certain: The more closely we observe animals, the smarter we find them to be. I can't think of a single serious study that concluded an animal was actually less intelligent than we thought.
posted by IdiBot at 12:42 AM on March 2, 2008

I worked at the U. of Arizona when Alex lived in a lab there. I visited him once. Irene brought him out of his cage and he said in his little voice wanna go back!
posted by InstantSanitizer at 8:05 AM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just came back from a dive trip where, on one of my dives, I was followed for most of my time underwater by a young yellowtail snapper. (I could tell it was the same one because it had a dark marking on its side that let me differentiate it from all the other snappers which weren't following me.) No idea why it chose to do so. I wasn't the only person who was followed by a snapper this trip, so it's probably not an uncommon thing, but unlike, say, the Great Barracuda (which supposedly follows divers around because it's attracted to shiny things they carry, or thinks that they're large predators who will leave food scraps they can scavenge), I haven't found any Snapper-related writings that theorize on this behavior.

In any case, so long as I was just swimming about doing my own thing, the little guy would get very close, constantly gliding and weaving by a foot in front of my mask, practically getting in my way. But as soon as I turned my attention to him/her/it by trying to follow him around, he'd back off and keep his distance, making as though to swim away and around the nearest coral outcropping. So then I'd "ignore" him and he'd come back, right in my face again.

Obviously this proves nothing, but I was struck by a feeling of curiosity and ... sneakiness. "Following you? I'm not following you, I'm swimming around this here coral!" At the very least, it really seemed like this fish was responding to relatively subtle changes in my body language (I wasn't lunging at him like a predator, only moving towards him a bit, and sometimes just angling parts of my body) without some kind of obvious end like readily available food, shelter, or mating as a result. Me, a swimming human. How strange!
posted by bettafish at 7:59 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

At the very least, it really seemed like this fish was responding to relatively subtle changes in my body language

I should think so. Survival is unforgiving. Every millisecond counts, every intuition is meaningful, every moment makes or breaks the next. That fish was precisely at the line between attraction and fear: life and death: benefit and harm. If it weren't expecting to benefit by being there, it wouldn't be there: it's all about the food, safety, and sex.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:23 PM on March 2, 2008

Or, rather, The Sex; and the food and safety.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:24 PM on March 2, 2008

Quite. Picking up on a normally terrestrial mammal's cues, though - kinda cool, when you think about it. Of course I could have been (and probably was) much more blatant and more universal with my movements than I realized. Hmmm, do fishes use eye contact? Even if they do with other fish, would a fish be able to make eye contact through a scuba diver's mask? Thoughts to consider.

Anyway, it was an interesting, and rather funny encounter. Grow large, live long, and produce many more yellowtails, little guy!
posted by bettafish at 8:01 PM on March 3, 2008

Being that you've never had need of being particularly subtle, being neither sneaky predator nor spookish prey, I should think your body language was about as subtle as British tourist speaking to the local natives. "'E DON'T UNNERSTAN YOU LOVE, YOU GOTS TA SPEAK LOUDER!"
posted by five fresh fish at 9:08 PM on March 3, 2008

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