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Surprising observations on animal cognition

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honey bees (Back of honey bees to the fold after collecting pollen. Photo 2007)

Animal intelligence (animal cognition) is a term referring to the cognitive abilities of animals and their study. The subject has given rise to numerous studies whose results not only provide a better understanding of the animal world, but also, by extension, the tracks for the study of human intelligence. Scientific experiments have for example shown that human babies are on an equal footing with animals when it comes to simple arithmetic: a surprising discovery that highlights the interest of research on animal intelligence.

Different groups of species are distinguished by their intellectual abilities in research on cognitive ethology. Apes, dolphins, elephants and corvids (magpies, ravens), who can recognize themselves in a mirror, chimpanzees and crows that manufacture tools, parrots that can hold a structured conversation understand the concept of zero and communicate with more than eight hundred words, elephants have a singular behavior towards their dead and cetaceans with a complex language are examples. Other animals such as rats, pigs and octopuses have interested researchers in their reasoning.

Some animals with a particular social organization, called “eusocial animals” have limited individual intelligence but still able to form communities able of intelligent adaptation when they are in groups: this is called collective intelligence, as is the case in social insects.


There is a distinction between “intelligence”, abstract concept, and “intelligent behavior” observable and measurable phenomenon. Intelligence is not a biological property as brain size, but an abstraction based on value judgments about the behavior of an organism. The higher or lower results in experiments determine somehow the “degree” of intelligence. If the observer finds that a species has a sufficient amount of behavioral traits that characterize according to her understanding, it will classify the species as rather intelligent.

Much of what has been considered until now as in the field of animal intelligence is now under the name of “animal cognition.” Also called cognitive ethology, this discipline is the study of modern mental abilities of animals except humans. It was developed from comparative psychology, also known as differential psychology, and was strongly influenced by the approaches of ethology, the behaviorist ecology and evolutionary psychology.

One of the interests in the study of animal cognition is to try to understand its effects on habitat selection, invasions or biodiversity, for example. Different manifestations of cognition, such as exploration, neophobia, innovation, individual and social learning, the use of tools, reciprocity and coalitions have effects on social relations, food choices or the response to environmental disturbances caused by man.

Regarding food, Alex Kacelnik research, ecologist behaviorist at the University of Oxford, unveiled a faculty observable in some birds: the ability to recall events from the past. In an article, Kacelnik explains how the Scrub jay seems to remember the kind of food he hides and determine when it should recover to prevent them from rotting. Cognitive psychologists, who care for human beings, call this ability episodic memory.

Cognition varies from species to species, from simple learning in several invertebrates to much more complex forms in bees, octopus, corvids, primates and toothed whales. When animals are examined to determine their ability to learn a rule, the best results are achieved by humans and, to a lesser extent, their primate cousins.

Often are used as examples of animal intelligence cases of extremely complex or highly appropriate behavior. Some collective behavior of insects, that of bird nests construction or the use or production of tools come within this framework. As impressive as they are, these examples are not necessarily indicative of intelligent behavior. They may be only manifestations of sensorimotor sophisticated programs. The characteristic of intelligent behavior, as defined by humans, should be the reaction of the individual before a new challenge to survive and possibly about how he transmits his knowledge to his fellow creatures. However, Clive Wynne, who has studied cognition of pigeons to the University of Florida, says that this definition may be limiting and unfit to represent animal intelligence (other than human). He states that “the specialist psychologists of human cognition are sometimes so stopped on their definitions that they forget how animal discoveries are fabulous.”

The fact remains that the study of animal cognition focuses in part on the study of the following issues: Can animals adapt its techniques – build complex nests, for example – using new materials to address the lack of the usual materials? Can he get a new food source that would be relatively inaccessible, when traditional sources are drying up? Can quickly learn new methods of action to avoid predators, or to react to the sudden appearance of a new form of predation?

Surprising observations

In laboratory, studies on birds and mammals open other avenues for the study of animal cognition. In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that the imitative ability of some animals might actually be a demonstration of intelligence. Indeed, Louis Herman, cognitive psychologist, says that dolphins demonstrate their ability to form a mental image when they mimic, for example, the laying of their coach.

Dolphins in a dolphinarium (Dolphins in a dolphinarium number of Mallorca, 2006, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Delfinarium_Mallorca_2006.jpg)

Since the late 1960s, Herman is studying dolphins. To communicate with them, he has developed with his team a coded language transmitted by the arm and hand of coaches. To vocabulary terms such as “basket” or “ball” were added abstract terms that refer to a basic grammatical knowledge: “left”, “right”, “inside”, etc.

Beyond the ability of dolphins to meet the demands of coaches, Herman has shown that these animals could create movements that had not been training. During an experiment, words like “surfboard”, “dorsal fin”, “touch” are transmitted to a Herman‘s dolphin. At the signal, the animal swam to the board, turns to the side and touch it to its dorsal fin – a response that had never taught him. Following this observation, the researcher and his team designed a sign to ask the dolphins to invent a movement of their choice.

Adaptation capacity and creative spirit

One aspect of the current research on animal intelligence is therefore based on the definition of the concept of “intelligence”. Therefore it is necessary to address the question of assessment of results of experiments and conventional conceptions of human intelligence. For many people, animal intelligence does not refer to the production of ideas, as is the case with the human instructed by his culture. So it would not matter to think to get around obstacles, no more than “creative spirit”, as observed in Herman‘s dolphins. Researchers say that animal intelligence would rather the ability of an animal to adapt to new pressures of his environment. With this in mind, be smart would only learn to adapt and take advantage of the medium changes.

Translated from Wikipedia

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