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Guide Index

If Only They Could Talk!

Who Needs Words, Anyway?

Number Crunchers

Figure That One Out

No Fools About Tools

Thinking About Thinking

Viewer Challenge
in the classroom
TEACHING GUIDES


Animal Einsteins:
Who Needs Words, Anyway?


Can animals think without words? Do they think and reason without a formal language? Can animals learn to comprehend abstract concepts? Researchers work with Rio the sea lion and Sheba the chimp as part of ongoing explorations to investigate these questions. The animals' mental abilities are compared with those of a young child.

Curriculum Links
National Science Education Standards
Related Frontiers Show and Activity
Activity: Listen to the Animals
Extensions




CURRICULUM LINKS


BIOLOGY/
LIFE SCIENCE


marine mammals, primates

GENETICS


evolution

HUMANITIES/
LANGUAGE ARTS


speech

PSYCHOLOGY


cognition, communication




NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS

SCIENCE AS INQUIRY / LIFE SCIENCE
5-8: Reproduction and Heredity, Regulation and Behavior, Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
9-12: Biological Evolution, Behavior of Organisms
SCIENCE IN PERSONAL AND SOCIAL PERSPECTIVES
5-8: Science and Technology in Society
9-12: Science and Technology in Local, National and Global Challenges
HISTORY AND NATURE OF SCIENCE
5-8: Science as a Human Endeavor, Nature of Science
9-12: Science as a Human Endeavor, Nature of Scientific Knowledge




RELATED FRONTIERS SHOW AND ACTIVITY



ACTIVITY: LISTEN TO THE ANIMALS

It's long been assumed that because animals do not possess a true language, they cannot be capable of abstract thoughts. Many studies, like those seen on Frontiers, are challenging this assumption. Exploring how animals think is important, because observations may tell us more about the human mind and how it evolved. Before we can talk with the animals, we need to find out how animals "talk" with each other. In this activity, you'll observe and listen to see if specific animal calls are associated with specific actions.

PROCEDURE

PART 1: WHAT DO YOU KNOW?

  1. Work in groups of two students each to compile a list of different kinds of communications you've witnessed among animals. (Examples might include dogs growling, cats hissing or birds calling.)

  2. Write the examples on the board and determine which animals you think communicate more than others.

  3. Select one or two animals from the list to observe. (Birds, especially in spring, are a good choice. You could also observe animals at a zoo or pet store.)
PART 2: OBSERVING ANIMAL COMMUNICATIONS

  1. If you have access to a video camera, set it up so you can videotape actions and sounds that the animal makes. If you don't have a camera, use a journal to record observations.

  2. Make sure you sit quietly and observe for a minimum of 15 minutes. Patience is key to studying animal communication or any kind of animal behavior.

  3. Write down any sounds you hear and the actions associated with those sounds. (For example, a bird might sing on a perch, look around, then move to another perch.)
PART 3: ANALYZE OBSERVATIONS

Prepare a report on your observations. If you made recordings, play them and explain what kind of communication you think is taking place and why. For example, a bird singing a specific song might be establishing boundaries of its territory or attracting a mate.

QUESTIONS

  1. How many sounds seemed to be related to a specific activity?

  2. Do you consider the communication you observed to be an animal "language"? In your opinion, is animal communication the same as a language? (Not even the experts agree about these questions!)

  3. Were any other types of communication associated with the sound? (For example, a dog may growl and also bare its teeth.) If so, do you think the sounds would be as effective without these other displays?


EXTENSIONS

  • Animal researchers have been exploring the ways killer whales, dolphins and other marine mammals communicate. Find out more about these animals' linguistic skills. Do you think they use "language"?

  • Find out more about the primates in this program. Compare New World (South American) tamarins with Old World (African) chimpanzees. How are great apes, monkeys and other primates related?

  • Imagine you and some friends lived ages ago, in a time before language and speech. How would you communicate with your friends?

  • Research the differences in primate cranial capacity and anatomy required for speech. Start your research by searching the Web under key words like "animal intelligence" or "animal language." Begin with the PBS Search Engine.

  • Scientists working to identify the human genome are also studying the genome of the chimpanzee. Scientists suspect only about 50 genes account for cognitive differences between people and chimpanzees, out of the 100,000 or so genes that make up humans and chimps. The DNA of chimps and humans is on average about 98.4% identical because the two species are believed to have shared an ancestor about five million years ago. Explore the cognitive differences and similarities.

  • Koko the lowland gorilla made history in April 1998, when she participated in the first interspecies chat on AOL. More than 30,000 people logged on. You can read the transcript and learn more about Koko and other gorillas learning American Sign Language at The Gorilla Foundation.





 

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