By Steve Connor, Independent UK
December 8, 2007
The chimp who outwits humans; the dolphin who says it with seaweed; the existential dog
An elephant that never forgets its extended family, a chimp that can outperform humans in a sophisticated test of visual memory and an amorous male dolphin that likes to say it with flowers -- well, a clump of river weeds to be more precise. These are just some of the recent observations from the field of animal behaviour. They appear to show that there is no limit to the intelligence of animals, but what do we really know about the true cognitive powers of the non-human brain?
Experiments on wild elephants living in Kenya found that individuals can remember the whereabouts of at least 17 family members, and possibly even as many as 30. Tests in a laboratory in Japan found that chimps, and young chimps especially, have an incredible photographic memory. Finally, there was the story of the romantic river dolphins of Brazil. Males collected river weeds, sticks or even lumps of clay in their mouths to act as a form of sexual display to prospective mates. Scientists are convinced that it is not merely playful behaviour but a serious attempt at wooing the opposite sex with the cetacean equivalent of a Valentine's gift -- surely a sign of emotional intelligence.
The latest studies into the unusual behaviour of a range of species suggest that we should no longer assume that animals are just the dumb creatures that we've been led to believe since the days of St Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Italian monk whose moral philosophy formed the basis of our modern-day ethical treatment of animals. Indeed, scientists have found that animals are capable of all sorts of clever behaviour that we normally associate with human intelligence. They not only have good memories and a perception of the world around them, they also display feats of apparent far-sightedness and understanding that seem to go beyond the mental abilities of many people.