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Animals Are Astoundingly Smart And We're Testing Their Intelligence All Wrong: Primatologist

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Judging animals on our own terms and testing their intelligence according to how they perform human tasks offer little information into how smart they really are, according to Dutch biologist and primate expert Frans de Waal.

The chimp researcher – who just launched his latest book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? – illustrated this point through the classic example of showing chimpanzees and kids how to open a puzzle box. The child opens the box the same way, doing imitation, while the chimp does not do anything.

“So they had concluded that chimps cannot imitate; they don't have true imitation the way children do,” he said in an ABC News report. “But chimps are not as into us as we want them to be, so they may not pay as close attention to us.”

De Waal, reminded, however, that chimps are actually skilled at imitation and could do as the child did when they are faced with another chimp’s actions.

Currently director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University, De Waal devoted much of his time studying man’s close relatives, although also researching on animals such as crows, whales, dolphins, sheep and bats.

And he believes a new breed of scientists are now testing animals, which he considers much more complex than presently assumed, in ways more aligned to the animals' natural behaviors and abilities, leading to a greater insight into animal intelligence.

In the interview with Saturday Extra of ABC Radio, he urged one to not just think of the brain when assessing animal intelligence, but also consider the body and what it says. A case in point: Inky, an octopus that escaped from New Zealand’s National Aquarium earlier this year and disappeared into the vast sea.

To compare the octopus’ level of smarts to a human’s poses a challenge because of the former’s large brain and neurons located in the tentacles. Its nervous system is distributed, which makes its intelligence hardly comparable with that of a human or another mammal, De Waal explained.

What’s left to do, he advised, is to judge these creatures on their own terms. Animals, for example, lack the language that humans have, but communicate in several different ways such as echolocation among dolphins and bats, which require plenty of brain prowess.

Consciousness is also yet to be proven, but certain animal behaviors are indicative of it, including emotional control and planning for the future.

Listen to De Waal’s full interview on animal behaviorism here.

A new study also recently uncovered that bird brains, while much smaller in size than many other creatures’, are packed with far more neurons in the part of the brain linked to intelligent behavior that is tasked with cognitive functions such as planning for tomorrow.

Photo: Aaron Logan | Flickr

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