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The Frontiers Decade:
Wonders of the World

Frontiers has taken us to many natural wonders on Earth -- from hot springs in Yellowstone to the middle depths of the ocean, from a live volcano in the Caribbean to the frozen reaches of northern Scandinavia. Whether the subject is a tiny mollusk or giant blue whale, Frontiers has shown us that the world around us is a living laboratory, alive and vulnerable.

Become a Naturalist
A Visual Balancing Act


A naturalist is someone who observes signs of animal or plant life. If you've ever studied an insect or other animal closely, then you already qualify. You don't have to travel very far to become an amateur naturalist or backyard scientist. Put your senses on alert and gather some low-tech equipment like paper, pencil, binoculars and maybe a camera. You'll find subjects to study as close as the nearest cobweb. If you're more adventurous, head for the great outdoors.


Whether you're conducting a city safari or backyard hunt, observation is the key to becoming a naturalist. Take a notebook with you. Map the area and record your finds, noting vegetation, animal tracks in winter, signs of visitors and seasonal variations. Use all your senses.


Serious birders sometimes travel hundreds of miles to catch a glimpse of rare species, but you'll find birds in the backyard or nearby park. The formerly endangered peregrine falcon even nests on Manhattan buildings. You don't need to stick to birds. Spiders, insects and a variety of other species are all around. Compile a list of species you observe.


A special lens for photography isn't essential to your nature observations, but a macro or telephoto lens will allow you to take closeup photos. Take a tip from a pro and lightly mist a spider web with water before taking its picture. Videotape your pets in action, even set up a Web cam. If you have a new pet, start a photo or video diary and record its growth.


Take a walk outside and turn over a rock or log. What do you find? Photograph or sketch any wildlife found under the rock. Compare notes with someone in another part of town. Another way to conduct a species survey is to make a circle with a length of string, then note and identify all the flora and fauna within the circle.


Two of the most well-known naturalists are E.O. Wilson and the late Gerald Durrell. Wilson, the world's greatest expert on ants (a myrmecologist), studied ants as a boy because his eyesight was bad and ants were the creatures he could see the best. Durrell's lifelong love of animals is documented in wonderful books, including My Family and Other Animals, but he is best known for founding the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust in the U.K. An interest in animals and the natural world can lead to careers in many different fields -- wildlife management, ethology, zoo management and genetics, to name a few.


Some of the many Frontiers programs about animal behavior include "Whale Communication" (Show 103), "Flight of the Dragonfly" and "Bird Navigation and Mapping" (Scientific Breakthroughs in Germany, Show 402), "Monkey See, Monkey Do" (Prime-Time Primates, Show 504), "Nasty Critters" (The Wild West, Show 601), "Ultimate Speed" (Going to Extremes, Show 704) and "Echoes in the Night" (Expedition Panama, Show 801). Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information about these Frontiers shows and related activities!


Do animals communicate? Do they develop language? Do they think? Frontiers has presented many stories about scientists who pursue and investigate these questions. Frontiers has observed whales that sing, parrots and chimps that count, birds that use tools and many other smart representatives of the animal kingdom, including extremely clever spiders and pigs.

Animal Einsteins (Show 903) is an episode entirely devoted to stories about animal intelligence. As you have often seen on Frontiers, animals can be taught to associate abstract concepts or signs with specific objects or actions. Such symbolism might be said to be the underlying basis of language -- at least, according to some scientists studying animal psychology.

Chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins and other animals have been taught to recognize a simple sign language, in which a sign or symbol stands for something else. The animals could be said to be decoding symbols, a process children master when learning to read.

Here's your chance to practice some simple decoding and manipulating of symbols. Analyze the following puzzle about balanced masses. Determine how many squares it takes to balance three triangles. To solve this challenge, you'll first need to figure out the code. Once you've cracked this code and solved the puzzle, make up similar puzzles for your classmates.


Review the steps in the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, predict, test, modify, repeat. Then, as you watch Animal Einsteins or another Frontiers show about animal intelligence, select one or two experiments to use as examples in a discussion about scientific methods and experiment design. Address the following questions:
  1. What hypothesis is the scientist testing in each research project?

  2. Do you think the scientists' research projects demonstrate good experimental designs? How might you conduct the research?

  3. What other questions or theories would you like to explore about an animal featured in one of the stories or another animal you've observed? Design an experiment to test your theory.

  4. What do you think makes humans human? What is the nature of intelligence in humans? How is it different from intelligence in non-human animals? Consider the concepts of self-consciousness and language.


  1. Investigate some of the groundbreaking work that's been done to teach sign language to animals, especially to dolphins, chimps and Koko the gorilla.

  2. Until Irene Pepperberg started publishing her work with Alex the African gray parrot, most people assumed that parrots simply mimic people. Do you think Alex understands what he's saying? How would you know? Think about the distinction between communication and language as you watch stories about animal intelligence on Frontiers. Look for Alex in "What Do Animals Know?" (Show 205) and again in "If Only They Could Talk!" (Animal Einsteins, Show 903).


Other Frontiers episodes about animal intelligence include Shows 103 and 205, Prime-Time Primates (Show 503), The New Zoos (Show 805) and Spiders! (Show 905). Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information about these Frontiers shows and related activities!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.