Life from an outsider's perspective…

Animal Intelligence.

Animal intelligence, self awareness & camouflage. Mosquito insects

I recently watched this video of an elephant drawing a ‘self portrait’. I was amazed. I was also amazed at some of the responses this video provoked on youtube. It really opened up a can of worms. People on one side were saying how cool it was, others were protesting everything from to “stop animal cruelty!” and “it’s a robot hoax” to “he’s following the outlines”. I’m sure this has already been said, but is this any different from the way that some humans paint by numbers?

Of course the resulting discussion which should have been about animal intellligence and self-awareness was vastly overshadowed by the ensuing debate that raged about animal abuse. This is not helped by the author of the video, who actually capitalises on those elephant paintings. Apparantly they donate 25-50% of the profits to this elephant sanctuary which rescues abused elephants. I do not see any cruelty in this particular video but I’m sure that if humans can somehow profit by something like this, then they’ll do so by whatever means. And if not this place, then somewhere else will. Given the choice, I am sure that the elephants also prefer to roam free… therefore I prefer to support more conventional animal charities which encourage the true conservation of our remaining wilderness zones. Anyway, I wanted to write this article primarily about animal intelligence, so I don’t want to get any more off track than I have already…

Animal Intelligence & Communication: 

One thing that pisses me off is that it seems some individuals have decided that animals must pass human standards to be considered intelligent or self-aware. So the criteria that defines animal intelligence is completely biased. I am positive that the average American person would score far less than normal if the intelligence test was written in Chinese. By the same token, would we pass a “Dolphin Intelligence Test”? I think not. How many whale songs do WE know how to sing? How do we know if we’re following their rules correctly? I can just hear the whales now “those stupid humans are just copying all of our past songs; they haven’t got a clue about the mathematical rythms involved”.

Wikipedia defines ‘communication’ as “the process of transferring information from a sender to a receiver with the use of a medium in which the communicated information is understood by both sender and receiver.” I could argue that since many animals can communicate with each other, they must be intelligent to varying degrees. It’s not commonly known, but chimpanzees have even been taught to communicate with humans using sign language! There’s a whole chapter devoted to chimp communication in Carl Sagan’s book “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”. Gorillas and Orangutans have also been taught to communicate with sign language, understand spoken English and use symbols. Humpback whales communicate over distances more than 100km with complex songs like this one, recorded by the Ocean Mammal Institute.

But if we can’t understand whatever animals are communicating about, I think we’ve just over-estimated our intelligence level, while simultaneously underestimating theirs. I come to the inevitable conclusion that some humans are so damn conceited.

Animal Feelings & Moods:

One of the things I hate about Science for example (and I’m an ex-research scientist by the way) is that animal’s feelings are not generally recognised by the wider scientific community. They’re just concerned with cranial capacity. In my opinion, the very notion that some animals do not possess feelings is ludicrous. It doesn’t even need testing. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows how excited they get whenever you get ready to take them on a walk. They also whinge and cry – I have no doubt in my mind that they have both high low moods. They also experience jealousy. For example, every time I go into another room and show my Border-Collie-Cross a lot of affection (hugs, kisses and just plain old attention), I can hear yelps coming from the spoiled-rotten whippet in the other room. Animals are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Furthermore, elephants mourn the dead with bizarre death rituals.

“The greatest danger to our future is apathy.” -Jane Goodall

If you’ve read this far, and you’re still not convinced that animals are intelligent self-aware creatures, I’ve compiled further evidence below:


After David Greybeard proved that chimps could make tools, scientists scrambled to establish another dividing line between man and primate. This time, they decreed it to be the use of language. One avid proponent of the new theory was Noam Chomsky, renowned linguist at MIT. Chomsky derided trainers for attempting to teach sign language to primates and insisted that only the human mind is capable of grasping the complexities of language syntax.

Nim Chimpsky.

Naturally, zoologist around the world became eager to prove him wrong. In the mid 1970s, trainers did everything they could to teach American Sign Language to Nim, but the chimp only mastered 125 signs. Apparently, his lingual development was sabotaged by his own one-track mind. His most advanced utterance was, “Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.”

Nim might have failed to grasp the concepts of syntax and sentence structure, but he wasn’t a total disappointment. Turns out, Nim was a decent abstract artist. Working mostly with a mix of magic markers and crayons, he produced works of art that critics describe as childlike and playful. He would
often work for weeks in one color, then switch to another, allowing his drawings to highlight the transition between phases. Nim died in 2000. Today, his portfolio of roughly 200 drawings is valued at $25,000.

In 1972, Stanford graduate student Francine Patterson began teaching American Sign Language to a female lowland gorilla named Koko. In only a few weeks, she was making the correct signs for food and drink.

Known as the world’s first “speaking” gorilla, Koko currently boasts a vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and understand roughly 2,000 spoken words.

When not signing or pushing the envelope of political incorrectness, Koko enjoys playing on her computer. In 1998, she even logged onto America Online and fielded questions from the public through  an interpreter. During that chat, fans were able to learn what pet Koko would like to have (“dog”), the first-hand gossip on what she thought about the male gorilla brought in to be her mate (“frown bad bad bad”), and what a 310-pound gorilla really wants (“candy, give me”). But such mindless banter clearly wasn’t enough to hold the attention of a genius gorilla. Koko soon grew bored with the chat (calling it “obnoxious”) and wandered off to play with her dolls.

In 2002, researchers began noticing that Kanzi was able to express his needs using four distinct sounds that corresponded to specific objects or commands (banana, juice, grapes, and yes). While this particular brand of beat poetry isn’t necessarily stimulating, the very suggestion that primates employ an audible “language” is a direct affront to the linguistic experts who claim they don’t have the marbles to do so.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi.

Besides accomplishing the academic kiss-off “Nim” Chimpsky could only dream about, Kanzi has established himself a true primate prodigy. In addition to “bonobo,” he understands between 2,000 and 3,000 spoken words in English. He even communicates with his tutor, psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, by punching abstract symbols on a special keyboard. While most Americans still can’t bring themselves to learn a second language, Kanzi is now dabbling in three.

While chimpanzees and gorillas are puttering about in English classes, orangutan siblings Azy and Indah are working on something more akin to studying for the LSAT. At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo exhibit, the “Think Tank,” primates are taught to practice more abstract ways of thinking, often working with logic puzzles and communicating via symbols.

Indah, for instance, learned to combine symbols representing verbs and nouns to create simple commands, such as “open bag.” She was also a (relative) math whiz, having mastered the numbers one, two , and three. Before her death in 2004, her trainers were well on their way to teaching her how to assign numerical values to objects – the first step in monetary exchange. (She was so close to being able to go shoe shopping!)

While less left-brained than his sister, Azy is no simian slacker. He’s mastered counterintuitive thinking, something chimpanzees (supposedly the smarter species) can’t do. For example, trainers can present Azy with two bowls of grapes; and although his first inclination is to grab the one with more grub, he’s now learned that picking the bowl with fewer grapes will get him a bigger reward. Source


A research associate in the Stanford University School of Medicine, O’Connell-Rodwell has come to one of Africa’s premiere wildlife sanctuaries to explore the mysterious and complex world of elephant communication. She and her colleagues are part of a scientific revolution that began nearly two decades ago with the stunning revelation that elephants communicate over long distances using low-pitched sounds that are barely audible to humans.

In 1997, O’Connell-Rodwell took this discovery in a bold, new direction by proposing that low-frequency calls also generate powerful vibrations in the ground – seismic signals that elephants can feel, and even interpret, via their sensitive trunks and feet.

Scientists have long known that seismic communication is common in small animals, including spiders, scorpions, insects and a few vertebrate species, such as white-lipped frogs, kangaroo rats and golden moles. Seismic sensitivity also has been observed in elephant seals – huge marine mammals not related to elephants.

But O’Connell-Rodwell was the first to suggest that a large land animal is capable of sending and receiving vibrational messages. “A lot of research has been done showing that small animals use seismic signals to find mates, locate prey and establish territories,” she notes. “But there have only been a few studies focusing on the ability of large mammals to communicate through the ground.”

Her insights generated international media attention after the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami disaster in Asia, following reports that trained elephants in Thailand had become agitated and fled to higher ground before the devastating wave struck, thus saving their own lives and those of the tourists riding on their backs. Because earthquakes and tsunamis generate low-frequency waves, O’Connell-Rodwell and other elephant experts have begun to explore the possibility that the Thai elephants were responding to these powerful events.

Elephants may be able to sense the environment better than we realize,” she says, pointing to earlier studies showing that elephants will sometimes move toward distant thunderstorms. “When it rains in Angola, elephants 100 miles away in Etosha National Park start to move north in search of water. It could be that they are sensing underground vibrations generated by thunder.” Source: physorg – Scientists unravel the secret world of elephant communication


Humpback whales sing some of the most complex and beautiful songs known. The most basic unit of the song is a single sound or ‘element’. They may be long groans, low moans, roaring sounds, trills, and chirps, and are arranged into simple repeating patterns usually with two to four different sound types. These short strings of sounds are repeated several times and are known as ‘phrases’.
A collection of identical phrases is known as a ‘theme’ and the singer moves from one theme to the next without pausing. There may be up to seven or eight themes in a song, and these are sung in a specific order, from first to last. After the last theme the singer surfaces to breathe, then sounds again to start the song again from the first theme. Each song (full set of themes) may last from around six to fifteen minutes. The song itself is an amazing phenomenon. It is highly structured, and, at any one time, all the males in the population sing the same song using the same sounds arranged in the same pattern. Over time, however, this pattern changes, but all the singers make the same changes to their songs. After a few years the song may be quite different, but all the singers are still singing the same new song.


Caribbean Reef Squid have been shown to communicate using a variety of color, shape, and texture changes. Squid are capable of rapid changes in skin color and pattern through nervous control of chromatophores.[1] In addition to camoflauge and appearing larger in the face of a threat, squids use color, patterns, and flashing to communicate with one another in various courtship rituals. Caribbean Reef Squid can send one message via color patterns to a squid on their right, while they send another message to a squid on their left. Source


It has long been known that successfully foraging Western honey bees perform a dance on their return to the hive, known as waggle dance, indicating that food is further away, while (the round dance is a short version of the waggle dance), indicating that food is nearby. The laden forager dances on the comb in a circular pattern, occasionally crossing the circle in a zig-zag or waggle pattern. Aristotle in 330 BC, described this behaviour in his Historia Animalium. It was thought to attract the attention of other bees.

In 1947, Karl von Frisch correlated the runs and turns of the dance to the distance and direction of the food source from the hive. The orientation of the dance correlates to the relative position of the sun to the food source, and the length of the waggle portion of the run is correlated to the distance from the hive. Also, the more vigorous the display is, the better the food. There is no evidence that this form of communication depends on individual learning.

Von Frisch performed a series of experiments to validate his theory. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for his discoveries.

One of the most important lines of evidence on the origin and utility of the dance is that all of the known species and races of honey bees exhibit the behavior, but details of its execution vary among the different species. For example, in Apis florea and Apis andreniformis (the “dwarf honeybees”) the dance is performed on the dorsal, horizontal portion of the nest, which is exposed. The runs and dances point directly toward the resource in these species. Each honey bee species has a characteristically different correlation of “waggling” to distance, as well. Such species-specific behavior suggests that this form of communication does not depend on learning but is rather determined genetically. It also suggests how the dance may have evolved.

Various experiments document that changes in the conditions under which the dance is performed lead to characteristic changes in recruitment to external resources, in a manner consistent with von Frisch’s original conclusions. Researchers have also discovered other forms of honeybee dance communication, such as the tremble dance. Source

3 Responses to “Animal Intelligence.”

  1. What a great analysis! Simply fascinating. I’ve seen that particular clip doing the rounds on Facebook as well, and it has gotten the same sort of reception.

    I’m so glad I happened upon this post of yours as I was just thinking similar things about bees yesterday. There’s this colony collapse disorder happening across apiaries in the Northern Hemisphere, and I was reading up about it. The dance is clearly a very complex behaviour, and therefore an intelligent one.

    It isn’t going to score IQ points but as you so cogently point out, that misses the point. Mind you, given that we’ve only just opened our minds to the concept of emotional intelligence as a significant factor in human communication it may take us a while to get there with animals.

  2. Oh, and I wanted to add that in a University class I took there was a module on language acquisition in animals. The conclusion our professor left us with was that the only real reason that Bonobo chimps don’t speak as we do is that they lack the physical capacity to do so. They more than have the intellectual capacity. In fact, I’d be willing to bet they’d have a better handle on it than George Dumbya Bush, though admittedly it’s a low barrier to set 😉

  3. It infuriates me to think that animals are underestimated simply because they cannot “talk.” Where does it say that we are the only sentient beings?

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