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Archive for the ‘Animal Intelligence’ Category

We have a small upstairs balcony, just large enough for two chairs looking down on the street. The balcony is completely covered by the eaves of the house. Inside, there is a supporting beam, and that’s where a pair of doves have decided to build their condo.

[click to enlarge]

Most of the time, only one of them is here, just sitting there, resting. They are now used to us, so we can get within a couple of feet and take a picture without scaring them. We come up and talk to them through the screen door.

Today, we saw both of them there at the same time, one of them in the nest and the other in the adjoining condo – or perhaps separate bedroom.

We don’t know if there are any eggs in the nest yet. We’ll check the next time they are both out shopping.

If I were a dove, I’d find this spot too. It does not get any better. It’s completely protected from terrestrial predators, since it’s under a balcony that cannot be reached from the ground. It’s invisible from the outside. While other birds could get there, they’d have to know it’s there first. And it’s protected from all weather and wind.

When choosing real estate, it’s all about location, location and location.

In contrast, I searched for nests of doves, and found that not all doves are as smart as our pets. Check out this one:

[picture credit: imgur.com]

It’s right out in the open, on top of an ultrasonic bird repellant machine. It does not seem like the gizmo is working on the doves. Hopefully it won’t drive the chicks crazy when they hatch.

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The full title of the book is:

Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Aliens are little grey humanoids with big heads, large black eyes, slit mouths, and sometimes they speak English. Or are they?

I have always been of the opinion that we are in no way prepared for a meeting with actual aliens, if they exist.

Homo sapiens has been on the planet for about 200,000 years. Recent discoveries have moved it up to about 300,000 years, yet to be confirmed. Bottlenose dolphins have been around for about 15 million years, and I actually believe they are just as smart was we are, they just haven’t become toolmakers, because they evolved in an environment that does not require shelter, and where food floats by them so they didn’t need to develop agriculture to survive. But I digress.

Dolphins are alien intelligences, and they have lived next to us for the duration of our entire existence. The ancient Romans talked about dolphins and interactions with them. Yet, with advanced computer technologies, translation software, and decades of research into dolphin language, we still haven’t communicated yet.

Because communication with aliens is very hard.

If real aliens landed on earth, we earthlings couldn’t do a thing with them other than look at them. And they would look at us, marvel at our “intelligence” like we marvel about the intelligence of octopuses (or dolphins) and that’s where it would end.

Aliens is a collection of scientific essays about aliens and an excellent reference work. It analyzes the origin of life on earth, how life could have developed (or not developed) on other worlds, the likelihood of that having occurred, and the odds of us ever meeting another civilization.

If you have ever wondered if we are alone, read Aliens and you will marvel and be inspired.

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Other Minds – The Octopus, the Sea,

and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

When we think of intelligent animals, we think of whales, specifically dolphins, apes, elephants, dogs, crows and parrots. I have written much about this subject, and you can find the posts by selecting Animal Intelligence from the categories dropdown on the right.

We generally do not think of octopuses as intelligent. However, octopuses, as well at cuttlefish and squid, commonly classified as cephalopods, are highly intelligent animals.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of Other Minds, is a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, who started studying octopuses in the process of thinking about consciousness in humans and in animals.

Other Minds tells the story of how animal life first started on earth, and how the invertebrates started splitting off from the vertebrates some 500 to 600 million years ago. As it turns out, cephalopods are invertebrates, and all other intelligent animals are vertebrates, including humans. The common ancestor of both humans and octopuses are small flat wormlike creatures that lived over 500 million years ago. As a result, an octopus is about as different from a human as you can get, and still have two eyes – and a mind.

Godfrey-Smith illustrates many astonishing examples of octopus intelligence and it becomes quite clear that, yes, they are really bright, and yes, they are very alien, very different from us. He says that the closest we are likely ever to come to meeting an alien intelligent being is going to the aquarium and watching an octopus.

I searched and found a few astonishing videos. The first one is of an octopus escaping from a ship’s deck. Since an octopus has no hard parts, no bones, no shells, he can squeeze himself through a hole as small as his eyeball, his hardest part. The video below demonstrates that.

Octopuses can also learn to use tools and solve complex problems. Here is an example of an octopus opening a jar into which it has been placed.

There are other examples that show how an octopus can open a jar from the outside to get to the prey locked inside.

I am highly interested in animal intelligence and alien intelligence, so this book turned out to be a treasure trove of information and great anecdotes and stories. I learned much about the evolution of life on earth, and the development of intelligence and consciousness. If you have similar interests, this is a book you must read.

The author is trying to be factual, and the book is therefore more of a text book than an entertainment book, which makes it somewhat challenging to read.

But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am sure I’ll refer to it in the future.

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According to the World Wildlife Foundation, in 2014 the total population of African elephants was estimated to be around 700,000, and the Asian elephant population was estimated to be around 32,000. The population of African elephants in Southern Africa is large and expanding, with more than 300,000 within the region; Botswana has 200,000 and Zimbabwe 80,000. Large populations of elephants are confined to well-protected areas. However, conservative estimates were that 23,000 African elephants were killed by poachers in 2013 and less than 20% of the African elephant range was under formal protection.

— Wikipedia

In 2013 alone, over 1,000 park rangers were killed while attempting to defend African elephants from poachers. The elephant is a terribly endangered animal and it may only be a few more decades before there are no more wild elephants left.

Imagine my surprise when I found this advertisement in the October 2015 Robb Report Collection edition:

RobbReport2

RobbReport1This is  a magazine for the very rich. It is full of articles and advertisements for super cars, private jets, 3rd homes in remote islands, art and culture, and – apparently – big game hunting.

It is beyond my comprehension how BigGame.org can position itself as a conservation and education organization, when it’s really just a club for big game hunters – the Dallas Safari Club.

It makes it sound like killing elephants is a noble and worthy endeavor.

Tell me what you will, we can educate and observe completely without shooting a single elephant for sport. Making it sound like hunters are the good guys in this terribly destructive game is simply irresponsible.

Hunting big game for sport is as outdated as slavery. What exactly are “hunters’ rights” that need to be protected? Sounds kind of like protecting the rights of slave owners to me.

Elephants, along with whales and apes, are the most intelligent creatures on this planet, and we’re wiping them out – for sport (in the case of big game hunting) and the relentless greed for ivory in mostly Asian markets.

We humans have a responsibility to protect our fellow intelligences.

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Stop picturing little green men in your mind whenever you talk about aliens because, according to Simon Conway Morris, a leading evolutionary biologist from the University of Cambridge, if aliens exist or we ever encountered them, they would look a lot like humans.

— Sparkonit (from the book The Runes of Evolution)

It has always bothered me that aliens in popular culture media more often than not are humanoid. This never made sense to me. Simon Conway Morris argues that similar conditions would result in a similar fauna on an alien planet, so the alpha predator that would eventually emerge and become sentient would be humanoid.

65 million years ago the Chicxulub asteroid effectively wiped out a majority of the fauna on earth. In particular, the entire dinosaur population did not survive. Scientists speculate that at that time dinosaurs like velociraptors may have been hunting in packs and coordinating their actions. Let’s assume for a minute that the asteroid didn’t hit the earth that day and missed it, and another one didn’t come in the next 65 million years, a quite possible scenario.

Velociraptors would have had millions of years to further hone their hunting skills. Perhaps they might have learned to use tools, first sticks of wood, sharpened at the end, as primitive daggers and later spears. It’s easy to imagine that they would have developed sufficient intelligence to make tools. After all, they had claws with opposable thumbs.

Mammals would never have dominated the earth, and primates may never have evolved superior intelligence. In that world, there would now be the descendants of those tool-making velociraptors as the alpha predators. Sorry, they would look lizard-like, not humanoid.

So, changing one minor detail about our planet’s history by diverting a chance asteroid encounter, a pivotal series of events would not have happened, and the likelihood of humanoid aliens would be minimized.

 

 

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Pigs are highly intelligent animals, rumored to be smarter than dogs or cats. The novel Animal Farm by Orwell takes advantage of that fact for its plot. Pigs in “factory farms” spend their entire lives in small cages. Mother sows can’t even turn around. Their waste is flushed into open cesspools and when they fill up, the farmers spray the waste into the air so the globules drift away with the wind – onto the neighbors.

This is what it takes to provide cheap pork at Costco. Real farms would be way more expensive. Our hunger for inexpensive meat overrules our sense of responsibility for the lives and welfare of animals and the pollution of our environment.

Check out the video above and then go enjoy your BBQ.

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The whales are so smart they know that even if they hear the cranes coming up the pathway [to lift them out of the pool] or certainly if they see them, they won’t separate, they won’t allow it to happen because they know the possibility … that one of the members of their family or their social group could be taken away from them. … You’ll [hear] extremely upset vocalizations from whales that are … being taken away, and then the whales that they’re being taken away from.

— Former Orca Trainer for SeaWorld

This reminds me of the practice in human slavery, when female slaves were forced to “breed” children so they could be sold off as quickly as possible for profit.

SeaWorld has never really recovered after its drop in stock price and popularity resulting from the movie Blackfish. Recently I have seen prime-time TV advertisement by SeaWorld defending its practices.

Here is another, somewhat older website about the Miami Seaquarium – called in parody Seaprison.

We consumers can help by not patronizing businesses that enslave animals to make human profits.

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When I watch this short video of adult elephants rescuing a baby that fell, I cannot help but compare it to images that I have seen a thousand times of human mothers at playgrounds coming to the aid of their children as they tumble off some teeter totter or slide, fall into the sand face-first and start crying.

Comparisons like this reinforce my conviction that we humans are arrogant and misguided when we claim that we are different in kind from all animals, that we are somehow the crowned kings of nature.

We may be a little better at tool-making than most other animals, but I don’t see much difference when I observe these mother elephants and human mothers rescuing their toddlers in distress. I am sure the feeling in their hearts, human and elephant, are quite the same.

Quite the same.

 

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We have all heard about how smart octopuses are. They are among the most intelligent of all invertebrates. The exact extent of their intelligence and learning capability is much debated. Some people even try to keep them as pets, but it is difficult, since they can escape out of “secure” tanks due to their problem-solving skills.

Here is a video of an octopus getting off the deck of a ship through a very unlikely opening. I thought this was amazing to watch.

 

 

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Here is an inspiring video of a dolphin basically asking a diver for help – and then getting it. Events like this confirm to me that animals are not different in kind from humans. I know that religious people like to say that God made the animals, and then he made man and woman. We also like to rationalize that somehow we’re the crowning of the animal kingdom, and therefore we have the right to use and abuse animals as we see fit – and hunt and kill them when it pleases us.

There are so many examples of animal intelligence, the video below being just one of them, that clearly illustrate thinking, planning, collaboration, interspecies trust and interspecies communication. There is nothing that we have that dolphins don’t have, other than – we grew up on land and developed digits that we can use to manipulate things, like tangled fishing lines – and dolphins grew up in water and developed advanced echolocation techniques at the expense of having digits.

Watch this video and then tell me again that a dolphin is “just an animal.”

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I cannot say anything to add to the impact of this video.

This shows abstract thinking, planning, problem solving and creativity all at once – in an animal. It represents a powerful argument and example against human exceptionalism.

I believe humans are not the only animal that uses tools, that thinks, that has a sense of identity and self. I don’t believe that humans are different in kind from all the other animals.

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Time Japan Dolphins

from Time Magazine, Feb 10, 2014 – page 9

The Prime Minister of Japan, one of the most industrialized nations in the world, actually defended the Japanese practice of Dolphin hunting since it was “deeply rooted in their culture.”

What a lame excuse!

The Korowai tribe of south-eastern Papua is thought to be one of the last surviving tribes in the world engaging in cannibalism. Obviously, cannibalism is deeply rooted in their culture. Do we therefore allow it to happen?

The Mayans, just a few centuries ago, made human sacrifices to their gods. They tore the beating hearts of their victims out of their chests, before they decapitated them. This practice was deeply rooted in their culture. Would it therefore be acceptable to let it continue today?

Early Christians stoned female adulterers to death if they got caught. Being passed down from the Old Testament, this law was deeply rooted in the Christian culture. Do we stone adulterers today?

I think the Japanese Prime Minister should have more sense in 2014 and set an example that his nation can be proud of.

The Japanese should stop hunting dolphins and whales.

Related Posts:

Are Orcas more Human than Humans?

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When I was in grade school in German class, my teacher had us memorize poems. One of the poems I can still recite flawlessly today. It is “Der Panther/The Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke, written in 1902, and it goes like this:

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf –. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

Poetry, as always, is exceptionally difficult to translate, if not impossible. Here I found a surprisingly good translation, credit Wikipedia, that provides the content. It does not have the powerful and profound impact of the original German, not by a long shot, but it gives you an idea of the message:

His gaze against the sweeping of the bars
has grown so weary, it can hold no more.
To him, there seem to be a thousand bars
and back behind those thousand bars no world.

The soft the supple step and sturdy pace,
that in the smallest of all circles turns,
moves like a dance of strength around a core
in which a mighty will is standing stunned.

Only at times the pupil’s curtain slides
up soundlessly — . An image enters then,
goes through the tensioned stillness of the limbs —
and in the heart ceases to be.

Here is a website that shows the original and several different translations by different authors, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I am apparently not the only person who loves this poem and has tried to convey its essence to English speakers.

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SeaWorld’s stock is down 25% from its high point. The company blames it on “bad weather” affecting theme park attendance. However, the company is aware of the negative publicity brought by the surprise hit movie Blackfish. Before going public, the company described the risks to its business:

An accident or an injury at any of our theme parks or at theme parks operated by competitors, particularly an accident or an injury involving the safety of guests and employees, that receives media attention, is the topic of a book, film, documentary or is otherwise the subject of public discussions, may harm our brands or reputation, cause a loss of consumer confidence in the Company, reduce attendance at our theme parks and negatively impact our results of operations. Such incidents have occurred in the past and may occur in the future. In addition, other types of adverse publicity concerning our business or the theme park industry generally could harm our brands, reputation and results of operations. The considerable expansion in the use of social media over recent years has compounded the impact of negative publicity.

Statements by the company try to discredit the movie, calling it “shamefully dishonest.” SeaWorld recently took out a full-page advertisement in seven major newspapers condemning “inaccurate reports” while reiterating its advocacy for killer whales and their humane treatment.

But the facts tell another story. There are no records of killer whales in the wild ever attacking or killing humans. Of course, humans have a difficult time getting near the animals, so that alone does not really say much.

However, I have seen elephants, tigers and bears in zoos perform repetitive motions in their cages, wandering back and forth in the same pattern, wearing down the concrete beneath their feet. I have recently seen the dolphins at Dolphin Encounter in Hawaii circle their little enclosed habitats over and over again.

It is no surprise that an animal weighing up to 10 tons that is kept in a tight tank, fed on a diet of thawed fish, might exhibit similar stress. Like circus animals, they have to perform regularly, and often they are separated from their cubs or relatives against their will.

Between 1960 and 2012 there have been 114 cases of orcas in captivity attempting to harm their handlers or trainers.

It will be interesting to see if the business model of SeaWorld can survive this severe blow.

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Here is an orca exhibiting strange behavior. I can only assume it’s one of these possibilities:

1. The orca is trying to communicate with humans, and it’s using the only sounds that humans consistently seem to produce under water. He thinks it’s our way of communicating and he’s answering in “our language.”

2. The orca is simply “parroting.” A parrot has the ability to hear complex sounds and reproduce them.

3. The orca is being funny, mimicking us and essentially laughing at us.

If any reader has other suggestions, I’d be glad to listen.

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