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Jul 07

As Wise as an Owl?

Posted on July 7, 2016 at 1:40 PM by Craig Jacobson

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As wise as an owl? As sly as a fox? Can that old dog learn new tricks? Or is the bird brain just parroting everyone else? People have – rightly or wrongly – ascribed a wide range of traits to animals. But how smart can animals really be? New research has begun to explore animals’ intelligence and their relationships with humans.

For a background primer on other animals whose intelligence science has investigated, try Inside Animal Minds, a 3-episode PBS series that explores the smarts of dogs, birds, and dolphins.

Animals - Alex and Me.jpgBirds in particular have received a lot of attention in what are known as “animal cognition studies” in recent years. Irene Pepperberg and Alex, the African grey parrot, met in 1977. For 30 years, the two of them tested the limits of what birds could understand. When Alex died, he knew over 100 words and could count to 6. He had teased Pepperberg’s other parrots and refused to answer questions when he was bored. In doing so, he upended what science thought it knew about intelligence in animals that weren’t part of the primate family.

Animals - Genius of Birds.jpgBeyond Alex and other domestic birds, The Genius of Birds explores the intelligence of everything from pigeons to crows to bowerbirds. Some make their own tools; others remember hundreds of songs or remember thousands of miles of territory. Birds can share, give gifts, manipulate, play, and compete for status. Ackerman explores what these actions mean for the birds themselves and our view of what intelligence really means.

Animals - Soul of an Octopus.jpgBirds aren’t the only surprising source of animal intelligence these days. While they may be spineless, octopuses (or octopodes) are far from boring. They use coconut shells to hide themselves, jet water to bounce balls around, and regularly escape their enclosures as well as their human handlers. The Soul of an Octopus traces scientists’ attempts to understand the mind of these “wild, solitary shape-shifters.”

Animals - Are We Smart Enough.jpgThe debate over whether or not animals is argued from many sides. What makes an animal intelligent? Using tools? A sense of self? Something else entirely? Can the intelligence of animals be accurately evaluated by human standards at all? Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?explores this conundrum, drawing on his own work as well as recent research and a range of stories from the field.

Animals - Being a Beast.jpgCharles Foster tries to answer that question from a different perspective. To understand the lives of animals, he tried to live as a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer, and a swift – catching fish in his teeth, following the swifts on their migration route, and rooting through London garbage cans, among other things. Being a Beast explores how well people can ever understand the animals we share the planet with and, ultimately, the boundaries of the human experience.