Animals teach humans about brain power

2012-06-25 14:03

Washington - It's not just man's closer primate relatives that exhibit brain power. Dolphins, dogs and elephants are teaching us a few lessons, too.

Dolphin brains involve completely different wiring from primates, especially in the neocortex, which is central to higher functions such as reasoning and conscious thought.

Dolphins are so distantly related to humans that it's been 95 million years since we had even a remotely common ancestor. Yet when it comes to intelligence, social behaviour and communications, some researchers say dolphins come as close to humans as our ape and monkey cousins.

Understanding of concepts

Maybe closer.

"They understand concepts like zero, abstract concepts. They do everything that chimpanzees do and bonobos can do," said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University who specialises in dolphin research.

"The fact is that they are so different from us and so much like us at the same time."

In recent years, animal researchers have found that thought processes in critters aren't a matter of how closely related they are to humans. You don't have to be a primate to be smart.

Dolphin brains look nothing like human brains, Marino said. Yet, she says: "The more you learn about them, the more you realise that they do have the capacity and characteristics that we think of when we think of a person."

These mammals recognise themselves in the mirror and have a sense of social identity. They not only know who they are, but they also have a sense of who, where and what their groups are.

They interact and comprehend the health and feelings of other dolphins so fast it as if they are online with each other, Marino said.

Dogs observing humans

Animal intelligence "is not a linear thing," said Duke University researcher Brian Hare, who studies bonobos, which are one of man's closest relatives, and dogs, which are not.

"Think of it like a toolbox," he said. "Some species have an amazing hammer. Some species have an amazing screwdriver."

For dogs, a primary tool is their obsessive observation of humans and ability to understand human communication, Hare said.

For example, dogs follow human pointing so well that they understand it whether it's done with a hand or a foot; chimps don't, said Hare, whose upcoming book is called The Genius of Dogs.

Empathising elephants

Then there are elephants.

They empathise, they help each other, they work together. In a classic co-operation game, in which animals only get food if two animals pull opposite ends of a rope at the same time, elephants learned to do that much quicker than chimps, said researcher Josh Plotnik, head of elephant research at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand.

They do even better than monkeys at empathy and rescue, said Plotnik. In the wild, he has seen elephants stop and work together to rescue another elephant that fell in a pit.

"There is something in the environment, in the evolution of this species that is unique," he says.

  • jake.neumann.35 - 2012-06-25 15:52

    Elephants will also leave a calve behind to let it die during difficult times. I have seen in the Addo National Park how a female throws a youngster repeatedly against an electric fence to break it with the calve screaming like a pig. In Chobe, elephants won't protect their own against mega-prides of lions and they will stand and watch while the lions kill their family member slowly. So much for empathy and care!

      jody.beggs - 2012-06-25 16:04

      What, no links to back yourself up ! You could be talking out of your @rse ? Are you a religious retard ? Damn the man.

      jake.neumann.35 - 2012-06-25 16:53

      No Jody, I am not a "religious retard", but a person who spends months on end with wildlife and many of the so-called human trends are often figments of the imagination. Yes sure, we share specific traits with certain species, but anthropomorphisising every wild animal might eventually suggest that that we start turning predators into vegetarians. And I do not need links to back myself up. Contact Lucius Moolman at the Addo Elephant Park. Some of his rangers have also reported elephants throwing calves against electrified fences. Go and spend two months in Chobe and you will witness lions selecting a specific elephant in a herd, then they isolate it from the rest and chase it till it goes down. It then dies a slow death with members of the herd watching. So, I am not talking out of my @rse, but it seems that I have wasted my time to get a comment from an @rse.

      millionwatts1 - 2012-06-25 17:36

      The animal traits Jake talks about are quite common. Just because he put them a bit more graphic doesn't mean they don't happen. Look at even animal behaviour around pro creation. Very few if any species distinguish between mother or daughter for mating. Normally humans do(I hope)

  • theo.groenewald - 2012-06-25 16:25

    Evolution has many branches. Just because we are not closely related to a species, does not mean we did not evolve some similar good and bad traits. You have to believe evolution to be a possibility for this to make sense, so if you don't, just let it go... :)

  • wallacelizzyII - 2012-06-26 05:51

    I would like to suggest that the animal kingdom is part of an ecological society that humans have shaped into its contemporay existence, this plane we have created has malfunctioned over the years. The bondage and control of animals by humans should/will/has a relative result. The animals will either react or respond to that type of treatment. Even if Humans claim they are aiding these animals, fact is the animals don't know such. The entire animal kingdom has been thrown of its natural axis by humans. I believe the Elephant is an ampathetic speceis by nature but has being pushed to resond just as the the planet earth is physically responding to the ecological disturbances by humans the animals will echo their frustrations in the same manner. We dont need scientific jargons to express the state of degeneracy that the human mind has sunk to. it is evident. and we should not compare the intelligence of humans to animals. its stupid. however we should admire the animal kingdom and not exploit the enviroment and then turn to say ohh we should protect the animals. Protect them from what?.....OVER DEVELOPMENT!!! that's the problem africa is pushed to the edge becasue someone wants to build skyscapers and mine out beatiful enviroment away.

  • K9LAKHAN - 2012-06-26 11:10

    The best article that i have read since the beginning of 2012. Goodwork!

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