Raven so smart that he “hacks” research experiment

The latest Planet of the Apes film is in theaters — and, as a fan of the series, I can’t wait to see it. But it’s not primate intelligence that’s in the news this week. It’s corvid intelligence.

A study published in this month’s edition of the journal Science reveals that ravens parallel great apes in flexible planning for tool-use and bartering. From the abstract:

Here, we show that ravens plan for events unrelated to caching—tool-use and bartering — with delays of up to 17 hours, exert self-control, and consider temporal distance to future events. Their performance parallels that seen in apes and suggests that planning evolved independently in corvids, which opens new avenues for the study of cognitive evolution.

A writer for Motherboard spoke with one of the researchers by phone. Turns out one of the ravens was so smart, he “hacked” the experiment and had to be removed from the study:

One raven in the experiment figured out how to work their rock/box contraption first, then began teaching the method to other ravens, and finally invented its own way of doing it. Instead of dropping a rock to release a treat, the future Ruler of the Raven Kingdom constructed a layer of twigs in the tube, and pushed another stick down through the layer to force it open. The bird had to be removed from the experiment before it could teach any other birds how to do it.

Here’s a completely unrelated video that shows a raven figuring out a puzzle in real-time while on live TV:

And I still stand by my belief that the crows in my neighborhood deliberately herd squirrels into oncoming traffic. After the squirrels are struck and killed, the crows pick at their carcass. I know it sounds gross, but I’ve seen too many instances of this behavior to believe it’s coincidence.

Dog elected as mayor of small town

Here’s a news story from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky (population 315). Recently, residents of this small town southwest of Cincinnati elected a pitbull named Brynneth as mayor!

But Brynneth isn’t the first canine mayor of Rabbit Hash. All of the town’s mayors — from 1998 until today — have been dogs. That’s a little strange, but it turns out that Rabbit Hash isn’t the only town to elect a dog as mayor. A pup named Duke has been elected mayor of Cormorant, Minnesota three times.

I suspect these pooches make better mayors than some of the humans who get elected. All the same, I don’t think I’d want my dog to run the city. She’d have us all digging holes and chasing squirrels.

Are nature documentaries fake?

I love nature documentaries like the awesome Planet Earth series from BBC. But I always wonder how much of what we see is real and how much is fake. Well, maybe not fake, but “manufactured”. What do I mean?

Well, take the sound effects, for instance. In Planet Earth, the sound seldom seems to match what’s onscreen. It seems magnified. Or even completely unrelated, as if it were added later. Turns out, it probably was.

In this six-minute video by Simon Cade from DSLRguide, he explores how nature documentaries are fake:

This reminds me of a memory from when I was a young boy. My father got to buy bulk ammo online and had taken me to see a movie — maybe Where the Red Fern Grows — in which some dogs hunt raccoons in a forest. On our drive home, we talked about the movie.

“Did you notice how the dogs and the raccoons were never on the screen at the same time?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“That’s because the dogs weren’t really hunting the coons. They filmed the dogs at one time and the raccoons at another time, then they spliced the footage together to make it seem like there was an actual hunt.”

I’ve remembered that conversation for forty years. Whenever I see nature footage, I wonder to myself how real is the story the filmmakers are trying to tell.

Baby elephant chases birds in circles

Did you like yesterday’s video of an elephant pretending to be a rhino? Want more of these clever beasts? Too bad. Today’s playful pachyderm ins’t necessarily smart — just cute.

Here’s a baby elephant chasing birds around in circles:

I love it!

I’m not sure where this video was taken. It sure doesn’t look like the parts of Africa I’ve visited. (Admittedly, that’s a pretty limited area.) It almost looks like this is some sort of nature preserve in the northern hemisphere. Anybody know for sure?

Elephant pretends to be a rhinoceros

Rhinoceros can be big, fast, and fierce. While they generally aren’t prone to unprovoked attacks, they’re formidable foes when protecting themselves — or other rhinos. So, what’s a herd of elephants to do when it surprises a cranky rhino? Why, put on a disguise, of course!

In this short video shot in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, one clever elephant defuses a potentially violent situation by picking up a branch and pretending to be a rhino too.

Is the elephant really trying to pretend to be a rhino? (And, if so, does the rhino actually believe the disguise?) Is it trying to use the branch as a weapon? Or is it just goofing around? I’m not sure. But one thing I do know is that this is another sign of animal intelligence.

Tiny housecat charges full-grown lion

You might think that the average housecat would be afraid of its much larger (and more ferocious) cousin, the lion — but you’d be wrong. In this short video, Baggy the brave calico stands up to and charges Noey, a full-grown lioness:

By the way, if you want to watch more videos of big cats, be sure to check out the BigCatDerek channel on YouTube (which is where I found this clip). Derek is the director of operations at a non-profit exotic animal sanctuary in north Texas, which means he gets to hang out with rescued lions and tigers. He posts tons of big-cat videos.

Pet fox loves his new tunnel!

Over at Favourable Fox on Tumblr, Kristen blogs about the things that are important to her — including her pet dog (Cas) and her pet fox (Riot). That’s right: This gal has a pet fox. And it’s so cute!

Riot is so popular that he has his own YouTube channel, which includes lots of foxy fun. Here, for instance, are Cas and Riot playing with a new tunnel in the back yard:

If you’d like to see more, Kristen has a separate section of her blog specifically for fox-related posts. And here’s her page with frequently-asked questions about having a fox as a pet.

Are plants intelligent?

In A Fire Upon the Deep, the 1992 science-fiction novel from Vernor Vinge, the action takes place in a vast galaxy populated by a variety of interesting alien species. On one planet, there’s a race of canines that operate with hive minds. Elsewhere, there’s a race of trees that can speak with fronds and which move about on mechanical platforms. (The 1999 prequel A Deepness in the Sky features another interesting race, one resembling spiders.)

Before that, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings featured the Ents, a hyper-intelligent (and powerful) race of tree-like beings that existed in a world that largely ignored (or was unaware of) them. The Ents moved and talked s-l-o-w-l-y, but because their lives were long, they had amazing memories and tons of wisdom.

In our real world, few people give credence to the idea that plants might possess intelligence. The notion seems absurd. Yet a recent article in the The New Yorker by Michael Pollan has raised the question: How smart are plants?

Pollan discusses past research into this question, including the best-selling (but flawed) 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants. But he spends most of his time discussing current research into the subject of plant intelligence. He interviews a number of scientists, including Daniel Chamovitz, author of What a Plant Knows.

Proponents of plant intelligence argue that:

The sophisticated behaviors observed in plants cannot at present be completely explained by familiar genetic and biochemical mechanisms. Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coördinate a plant’s behavioral response.

Those who believe that plants are intelligent say that “it is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success.”

Detractors argue that those who believe plants are intelligent are anthropomorphizing (a charge still leveled at many folks who believe animals are intelligent). Too, there’s debate over the definition of “intelligence” — and the definitions of other words that describe how organisms interact with their environment. According to Pollan, the debate isn’t over what plants do, but over how these actions should be labelled and classified.

In many ways, plants are like an alien species. Though they account for 99% of the biomass on this planet, their lives are strange to us:

  • They’re sessile. That is, they’re permanently rooted to one spot.
  • They’re modular. Humans (and most other animals) don’t have redundant parts. And if we lose certain organs, we die. But a plant can lose up to 90% of its body without being killed.
  • They have no central nervous system. They have no brain. We have a single organ dedicated to mental processes. Plants seem to derive what intelligence they may have from the tips of their roots.
  • When plants communicate, they do so with chemicals rather than motion or sound.
  • As noted earlier, plants exist on a different time scale than we do. They move so slowly that their actions seem imperceptible to us.
  • Plants “eat” light.

In his article, Pollan describes research into plant behaviors that resemble what we might call “learning” or “decision-making”. He discusses whether or not plants feel pain. He also talks about communication and cooperation and, amazingly enough, simple plant “economies” in which different species trade with each other.

Here’s a video clip that demonstrates some plant behavior that resembles intelligence:

What do you think? Is it possible that plants are intelligent? If so, what are the implications?

I first explored the idea of plant intelligence at this site more than six years ago. If you’d like more on this subject, Pollan did a follow-up interview on NPR’s “Science Friday”.

A sloth eating carrots

One reason I’ve decided to begin posting again at Animal Intelligence is that I’ve discovered a reliable source for new videos about animal behavior. Video-aggregator Wimp.com (one of my favorite sites) regularly features clips of animals doing amazing things. And doing normal things, just like this:

Yes, it’s just a sloth eating carrots. There’s nothing particularly intelligent (or notable) about it, but it’s the sort of thing I intend to post here. In fact, anytime Wimp links to an animal video, I’ll share it at Animal Intelligence — with more “color”, if I can find it. (In this case, all I can tell you is that this sloth’s name is Chewbacca.)

If you know of any other place I can find regular material to share here, please share it. I’ll add it to my list!

Buddy the talking starling

It’s been a l-o-n-g time since I wrote at Animal Intelligence. Too long. I intend to put an end to that. Instead of sitting on the stories I find, I’ll share them as soon as possible, even if I don’t have time to research additional background information.

To kick things off, here’s the story of Buddy, the talking starling:

Debbie Bingham from Morven, New Zealand, found Buddy while out for a morning stroll. The fledgling was lying on the ground, apparently dead. But when Bingham picked him up, he began to move his beak. Bingham nursed the bird back to health.

Bingham is a kindergarten teacher. One day, while taking Buddy to school to show her students, he began to speak. Now the three-year-old bird can speak several phrases — and is learning more all the time.

For more info, see the extended story from New Zealand’s 3 News. Also, here’s a two-year-old story about Buddy.