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Animal Acumen: An Introduction

This is a preview of a series of posts about animal cognition.

Read Part 1: Feathered Apes
Read Part 2: Elephantine Intelligence
Read Part 3: Cooperation and Punishment

We have often stereotyped animals with human-like traits: the wily coyote, the wise owl, the stubborn donkey. Children's stories and fairy tales are full of talking animals and our literature has works, such as Animal Farm, in which animals acting like humans teach us about ourselves. Many pet owners think of their animals as their children and credit them with similar levels of intelligence.

Now researchers, from neuroscientists to behavioral psychologists, are investigating in a methodical way animal cognition, or the way animals "think."

Interestingly, we haven't been entirely wrong in our lay assessments. "The animals that have always been popularly perceived as intelligent do turn out to be so when we psychologists come along and test them," said Dr. Lucy Bates. "Elephants, dolphins, crows, and monkeys, for example, are all perceived as being smart by various cultures or traditional stories, and now the science is just catching up to this. I think it is brilliant that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, people were able to make conclusions about these animals just from watching them in their natural environments, and the stories and legends were passed down the generations."

But now we can begin to address questions about why these animals are so smart. Neuroscientists believe that thought or behavior (i.e. the brain's function) must be mirrored in the brain's structure. Animals, especially our primate relatives, have brains that are, in many ways, similar to ours. Thus, animal behavioral researchers tend to come back to one theme: What can the behavior of these animals tell us about what makes us human?

"Although it is fun to ask whether an animal can do the same as humans, that's not the bottom line for me," said Dr. Nathan Emery of Queen Mary University of London. "I'm interested in how cognition evolved and the conditions which allowed it to evolve in a wide variety of species facing supposedly similar challenges in their day-to-day lives - how to find, extract and process food, how to deal with other members of your social group, how to deal with massive fluctuations in habitat and climate, etc. We see that all 'clever animals' (apes, cetaceans, parrots, elephants, etc) have to deal with these same challenges in a flexible manner."

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