Inside the Minds of Animals

Science is revealing just how smart other species can be — and raising new questions about how we treat them

  • Share
  • Read Later
Finlay Mackay for TIME

Kanzi, a 29 year old male bonobo photographed at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa

(4 of 5)

Great apes, despite their impressive intellect and five-fingered hands, do not seem to come factory-loaded for pointing. But they may just lack the opportunity to practice it. A baby ape rarely lets go of its mother, clinging to her abdomen as she knuckle-walks from place to place. But Kanzi, who was raised in captivity, was often carried in human arms, and that left his hands free for communication.

"By the time Kanzi was 9 months old, he was already pointing at things," says Savage-Rumbaugh. I witnessed him do it in Iowa, not only when he pointed at me to invite me for coffee but also when he swept his hand toward the hallway in a be-quick-about-it gesture as I went to get him his ball.

Pointing isn't the only indicator of a smart species that grasps the theory of mind. Blue jays — another corvid — cache food for later retrieval and are very mindful of whether other animals are around to witness where they've hidden a stash. If the jays have indeed been watched, they'll wait until the other animal leaves and then move the food. They not only understand that another creature has a mind; they also manipulate what's inside it.

The gold standard for demonstrating an understanding of the self-other distinction is the mirror test: whether an animal can see its reflection and recognize what it is. It may be adorable when a kitten sees itself in a full-length mirror and runs around to the other side of the door looking for what it thought was a playmate, but it's not head-of-the-class stuff. Elephants, apes and dolphins are among the few creatures that can pass the mirror test. All three respond appropriately when they look in a mirror after a spot of paint is applied to their forehead or another part of their body. Apes and elephants will reach up to touch the mark with finger or trunk rather than reach out to touch the reflection. Dolphins will position themselves so they can see the reflection of the mark better.

"If you put a bracelet on an orangutan and put it in front of a mirror, it doesn't just look at the bracelet," says Bhagavan Antle, director of the Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "It puts the bracelet up to its face and shakes it. It interacts with its reflection."

With or without mirror smarts, some animals are also adept at grasping abstractions, particularly the ideas of sameness and difference. Small children know that a picture of two apples is different from a picture of a pear and a banana; in one case, the objects match, and in the other they don't. It's harder for them to take the next step — correctly matching a picture of two apples to a picture of two bananas instead of to a picture of an orange and a plum.

"It's called relations between relations, and it's a basic scaffold of intelligence," says psychologist Ed Wasserman of the University of Iowa. Last year Wasserman conducted a study that proved some animals have begun building that scaffold. In his research, baboons and — surprisingly — pigeons got the relations-between-relations idea, correctly identifying the proper pairings with a peck or a joystick when images were flashed on a screen.

Significantly, just as humans better understand an idea when they have a term to describe it (imagine explaining, say, satisfaction if the word didn't exist), so do animals benefit from such labels. Psychologist David Premack of the University of Pennsylvania found that when chimps were taught symbols for same and different, they later performed better on analogy tests.

Beyond Smarts
If animals can reason — even if it's in a way we'd consider crude — the unavoidable question becomes, Can they feel? Do they experience empathy or compassion? Can they love or care or hope or grieve? And what does it say about how we treat them? For science, it would be safest simply to walk away from a question so booby-trapped with imponderables. But science can't help itself, and at least some investigators are exploring these ideas too.

It's well established that elephants appear to mourn their dead, lingering over a herd mate's body with what looks like sorrow. They show similar interest — even what appears to be respect — when they encounter elephant bones, gently examining them, paying special attention to the skull and tusks. Apes also remain close to a dead troop mate for days.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5