Now Playing: Talk to the Animals
Topic: Nature and Our World
I've always believed that animals are far more intelligent than people give them credit for, especially the mammals and the birds. Well, how could animals have survived for many hundreds of thousands of years before the dawn of man if they weren't clever and resourceful? But do they actually think and plan, are they aware of self and can they communicate with each other? Many trained animals seem to exhibit signs of intelligence comparable with a three or four year old child! So, for instance, how long does it take a child to realise that the image in a mirror is their own reflection? Well, about two years apparently. So it is not surprising that some animals, such as dolphins, definitely recognise themselves in a mirror and that dogs and wolves have a very strong sense of family.
Do animals think and plan? Well, this story I read once about a horse indicates that they can. The horse belonged to a farmer who kept him in a field about ½ mile away from the farmhouse. One night, the farmer was woken up by the horse neighing outside his bedroom. It was pouring with rain so an annoyed farmer had to put on wellies and a raincoat over his pyjamas and lead the horse back down the lane. When they arrived at the field, the farmer heard a strangled "MOO". The cow in the field next door had caught her horns in the fence and, in her struggles to get free, had fallen upside down - she would not have lasted the night. So, did the horse know he had to get help and that he had to jump out of the field and run up to the farmhouse? I think he did!
We talk of 'bird-brained' as a derogatory adjective but just because birds have a different type of brain doesn't mean it is inferior to that of mammals. My late sister, Pauline, once owned a pet Brazilian Hangnest. He was very tame and I can remember laughing when I showed him a mirror and he started to display to his image. I also showed him a book with a picture of a Hangnest. But he was a wise little bird and he craned his little head and looked behind the book. He may not have been aware of self but, he had realised very quickly that it was not another bird and from then on he stopped displaying.
Without doubt, one of the most intelligent birds is the parrot. And now a scientist undertaking research with an African Grey Parrot called Alex, has shown that he understands the abstract concept of zero and correctly used the word 'none' to describe an absence of objects. Alex can count, understands colours and shapes and has a large vocabulary. He can also get bored and irritated and refuse to answer, "No!", "Want corn!", just like a small petulant child. Another grey parrot called, N'kisi can use and apparently understand over 700 words and has an affinity for telepathy!
Teaching animals to mimic the human way of communication does not necessarily mean they have language skills in the wild although I believe many do. Take the Gorilla, Koko, who has learnt sign language. She has told her keepers she wants a baby! I remember seeing a TV programme about her a long time ago. It was sad because she was shown lots of pictures of male gorillas in zoos and she picked the one she fancied! However, when he arrived, he did not show any interest in poor old Koko! So, she mothers tiny kittens instead. Then there is the chimpanzee, Washoe and her friends. Washoe was taught signing and soon began to combine the signs into meaningful phrases, "You me hide", "You me go out hurry". When other chimpanzees were included in the study, they starting signing amongst themselves, even when on their own, and they taught signing to another chimp and adapted the signs for their own use. They were definitely talking to each other.
Scientists are just beginning to understand animal communication and I remember yet another TV documentary about Prairie Dogs. (You will know by now that I enjoy watching nature programmes on telly!) The scientist studying these little creatures tapes their squeaks and grunts, which sound all the same to our ears. He then analyses the sounds on his computer and creates a sonogram, or visual representation of the sound waves. It seems that the prairie dogs have a rudimentary language as he discovered that the little creatures had 'words' for various predators and for other animals such as deer or cows. They also had words for 'tall man' and 'short man' and they even added a sound to tall man to indicate he was wearing a red t-shirt. Amazing!
Perhaps, one day there will be a real Dr Dolittle who really can talk to the animals.