The Frontal Cortex

Animal Minds

There’s a nice overview of recent work on animal cognition in the latest National Geographic.

Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities: good memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self-awareness, understanding others’ motives, imitating others, and being creative. Bit by bit, in ingenious experiments, researchers have documented these talents in other species, gradually chipping away at what we thought made human beings distinctive while offering a glimpse of where our own abilities came from. Scrub jays know that other jays are thieves and that stashed food can spoil; sheep can recognize faces; chimpanzees use a variety of tools to probe termite mounds and even use weapons to hunt small mammals; dolphins can imitate human postures; the archerfish, which stuns insects with a sudden blast of water, can learn how to aim its squirt simply by watching an experienced fish perform the task. And Alex the parrot turned out to be a surprisingly good talker.

“Surprisingly good talker” is quite the understatement. As I wrote in a recent Boston Globe article, Alex had a vocabulary of more than 150 words. In 2005, Alex wowed many scientists when he began spontaneously using the word “none” to represent a rudimentary conception of zero. He also enjoyed inventing new words for things: he referred to almonds as “cork nuts,” since the texture of the nut resembles that of a wine cork. An apple was a “banerry,” a combination of two of his favorite other fruits, bananas and cherries.

My own African Grey – she’s a timneh named Junebug – isn’t quite so vocal. She’s on the shy/quiet side, but has recently formed a compound phrase by fusing two of her favorite expressions. For a while now, she has enjoyed saying “I love you” and “People!” whenever she sees new people. (Her other favorite expression is “What’s up?”) But now, for some strange reason, she prefers to shout “I love people!”. That said, June’s expressions are nothing Pavlov couldn’t explain. Her conditional reward is human laughter.

And here’s a picture of June eating broccoli (and yes, that’s Bruce in the background):



  1. #1 judy bond
    February 18, 2008

    Awhile back we put in a 4’x6′ frog pond in the backyard to give wood frogs a place to breed. 500 acres of woodland was being leveled to build condos in our neighborhood. I got permission to transplant small trees and shrubs and in doing so came across vernal ponds and frogs mating in them, so we dug our own shallow pond and transferred eggs.

    To keep the egg masses aerated we left them outside at night in big white plastic buckets before adding them to the pond. The crows, it turned out, loved this arrangment and not only got the eggs out of the deep buckets but also retreived them from the pond if I put the eggs too close to the edge. Crows are very smart.

    Tadpoles are too. We came across toad tadpoles later in the year and during a dry spell when the water in their puddle on the logging site was drying up, they swam in circles in the mud and made little deep pools for themselves so that as the water evaporated they had more of a chance of survival. Each tadpole had a little divet of water.

    Our pond is still in use. I need to clean the leaves out soon to make room for the arrival of this year’s lovers.

  2. #2 Rachael
    February 18, 2008

    My grandparents have an African Grey too. That bird is so perceptive, it amazes me. He always rearranges his words in ways that make grammatical sense and he has a knack for picking up on social cues. He’ll time phrases like “Night night” or “Bye” perfectly, and we still can’t figure out how he knows when the event is going to happen. He just figures it out. My grandparents used to leave the TV on for him to watch Soap Operas during the day. One day, a member of the family was very distraught and crying. Pepper had never seen someone, in person, crying, but he immediately started saying “It’s okay. It’s okay…” – either, he recognized the phrase and situation from the soap operas, he repeated a conversation piece in the moment, or he connected “it’s okay” with comfort — sometimes my grandparents would say “it’s okay” when he was startled. (The latter explanation would require some startling empathy.) Any way, they are amazing birds.

    There are some days when I wonder if we will see how we treat animals in much the same light that we view former ethnocentric ideas that were once commonplace. It takes effort to remind the world that animals are living beings too. Because we can’t communicate with them, we can only assume what their experiences are. Why do we assume that their experiences are any less affective than our own?

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