Monday, 13 June 2011

What is going on in an animal's brain?

I saw this video reposted on the Pharyngula blog under the title Compassion and Curiosity and it is hard to explain it in any way except that the orangutan was thinking in a way that closely follows some aspects of human intelligence. In fact the orangutan may have had a better idea of what was going on than the person who posted the video under the title "orangutan saves baby chick from drowning". The chick is quite clearly a moorhen chick (or a closely related species) which is quite at home on the water but in my view something is wrong with it, as it was not swimming as vigorously as I would have expected in the circumstances. Perhaps it was trapped by the steep sides of the pool as were the ducklings I reported on in April who were Trapped by the Bank.

OK. We are not surprised if our near primate relatives show some behavioral characteristics which seem to parallel our own - and observations seem to indicate some degree of intelligence in animals as diverse as rats and some members of the crow family.

However an article in this week's New Scientist (dated 11 June) includes an article "A Beautiful Mind" really made me think. It suggests that the mental skills of octopuses are on a similar level to chimps! But octopuses have been around for a very long time to hone their skills  ...

Another recent report (Lets Talk Dolphin,  Dolphin Speech) relates to some work that is proposed to try to talk to dolphins in their own language in the wild. The noises they make suggest a large vocabulary - and apparently they can learn 200 human words and even have some understanding of variations in word order. 

The case of the dolphin is interesting. We clearly need a large brain to help us control the kinds of activities (including tool-making) which we do with our hands, and also to help with our social interactions. Large active brains have costs in term to energy requirements, weight, and need for protection.  Octopuses can also demonstrate manual dexterity and tool using, and possibly also control of their colour changing - so one can see why a good brain could be an advantage.

But what about dolphins - they have no limbs to use dexterously - so what is the advantage except in social terms. Even if they were as clever as us they couldn't build the kinds of tools we have used to explore the universe. They have one distinct advantage over human beings - in water their brain weights nothing - they are warm blooded mammals living in water which is typically below body temperature - and energy expended in thinking is just as good at keeping the body temperature sufficiently high as simply burning fat - and the thick covering of blubber protects the brain from accidental damage (nothing equivalent to falling down and cracking your head on a rock).  If there are real advantages in Developing an intelligent brain the cost overheads are small compared with primates.

 So perhaps Douglas Adams was right when he humorously suggested that dolphins were the second most intelligent form of life on earth - he placed humans being in third place. Dolphins have been around for a long time and probably have been talking to each other for many millions of years - while human vocal language in any developed form may well only have been developed in the last 100,000 years. Maybe they can actually teach their young by talking to them!  While it is just supposition their language may actually be more advanced than ours - and one should not equate intelligence with the ability to make sophisticated tools.

It may well be that to understand how our brains actually make decisions at a practical level we also need to know a lot more about how animals can use their brains to interact with the world around them.

For anyone who has not followed the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams said the most intelligent form of life on Earth were the laboratory mice - who were actually conducting experiments on us - and not, as we thought, the other way round.

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