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):