Blog Posts

21
Mar

All Trunks on Deck

If I asked you to name the animal that was most human-like, you’d probably say chimpanzee, right? It’s a good answer: we are close to them on the evolutionary tree, and our genomes are about 95% identical.

But if you limited the comparison to ‘high-level’ behaviors of humans—like feeling empathy, mourning the dead, or cooperating with others—then you’d find a lot of non-primates that are surprisingly similar to us. For example, like ours, the brains of humpback whales contain spindle cells, neurons that are thought to be involved in advanced thinking, self-awareness and communication. Dolphins can categorize objects, learn an artificial language, and recognize themselves in a mirror, according to some studies.

Are you smarter than an elephant? (CCBYSA: SuperJew)

Then, of course, there’s the wise old elephant. Loads of studies attest to the elephant’s keen mental abilities, but I want to point out a new one that’s particularly cool. Scientists have demonstrated that two Asian elephants will patiently work together to get a sweet snack—even without any previous training. The study was published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

You can read more about exactly how the researchers set up this clever experiment (and see a video!) at Wired Science.

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Virginia Hughes

    Virginia Hughes is a freelance science writer in Brooklyn, New York, and she specializes in brains, genes, and the biotech industry. After wrangling human subjects in a large virtual reality lab, she turned to journalism and has since worked at Discover Magazine, Seed Magazine, and the science desk of National Public Radio. Her job entails visiting some of the world’s best laboratories, writing news and feature stories in her pajamas, Tweeting, and contributing to the delightfully quirky science blog, The Last Word on Nothing. Virginia’s secret life revolves around two activities: critiquing trendy New York City restaurants and playing with other people’s puppies.