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Do Animals Think? A Few Video Examples

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Bonobo Chimp Using a Tool

One of several photos Mike R. took of a San Diego Zoo bonobo using a stick to fish termites out of a nest.

One of several photos Mike R. took of a San Diego Zoo bonobo using a stick to fish termites out of a nest.

Signs of Intelligent Life

Within the last half-century, science has debunked the age-old assumption that the difference between humans and animals is that humans think, speak and use tools, whereas animals cannot.

My cat just reminded me that this is not so by coming upstairs to tell me to refill her box (using a different meow from the one she uses for "feed me"). I'm not sure if you'd call her behavior "thinking," but it's certainly not hardwired into an animal's biology to use a particular sound to persuade a human to refill a box of artificial sand. (Recent studies of cat-human interaction suggest that domestic cats learn which behavior and sounds will elicit a desired response from their particular human.)

Cats learn just enough to make us understand them.

Whereas several species of primates have demonstrated that they can learn and understand us.

Language Research With Primates

Since the fifties, scientists have studied ape intelligence by giving them verbal commands, teaching them sign language or training them to use touch-screens. Not only have gorillas, chimps and orangutans learned to communicate with humans through American Sign Language; they have taught these signs to their fellows and invented new sign-combinations to create new words. Their use of language is not very sophisticated, but the fact that they can learn words and use them in any way is startling!

Here is a recent example of chimp communication skills being studied at the Great Ape Trust. (I assume the helmet is to make sure that the trainer doesn't give any cues with her eyes or facial expressions.)

Kanzi the Bonobo Understands Simple Sentences

Tool Use and Language Among Chimps

Primates don't just understand words for concrete, physical objects and actions. Koko the Gorilla's comments on death after losing the kitten she named All-Ball deal with abstract concepts. Washoe the chimp signed the word "CRY" and attempted to comfort one researcher who had a miscarriage, after being told her baby had died.

Recent research from the Great Ape Trust with Kanzi (seen in the video above) have shown that some primates, at least, can be taught technology, such as how to build a fire, set up a barbecue, and toast marshmallows. (Also see this adorable video of Kanzi's baby, Teco, playing with an iPad.)

Moreover, primatologists have discovered that primates in the wild strip grass to fish ants from holes and use sticks or stones as simple tools. For example, from the BBC's YouTube channel:

Wild Chimps Using Stones To Crack Nuts

Dolphin Communication, Planning and Logical Thinking

But of course, those are primates, with sophisticated brains not that different from humans. What about other intelligent animals?

I learned about research into dolphin intelligence from a friend who interned at Hawaii's Dolphin Research Institute. She returned with a lot of stories about sophisticated dolphin behavior, including what appeared to be deliberate pranks. She also showed me a video of various kinds of intelligent dolphin behavior in the wild, including the use of sponges on their noses as a simple tool. Several studies also suggest that dolphins have and use "signature whistles" as personal names, calling close "friends" and family members by name.

I myself have witnessed two dolphin pranks at marine parks.

On one occasion, I saw dolphins in a pool with their heads together in what looked like a football huddle. Then they turned and began to swim around the tank in formation. On each pass, they would leap out of the water together at one place near the edge of the tank, forming a photogenic arc. A group of people gathered next to that spot to snap pictures. It became a hypnotic pattern, with camera flashes going off each time they jumped: Swim, swim, leap, swim, swim, leap, swim, swim, leap, swim, swim... KER-SPLASH! The dolphins belly flopped in formation, utterly drenching all the people with the cameras. After observing the spluttering humans and making chitters that sounded awfully like laughter, the dolphins scattered and went back to individual activities.

On another occasion, when my family arrived early for a show, Sea World San Diego's dolphins "invited" us to play catch. They collected all their balls and started tossing them to us, returning our throws. After some minutes of this, all of the balls suddenly flew simultaneously at one person! Again, after watching the mayhem they'd caused with excited noises, the dolphins scattered and went back to doing their own thing. The "game" was over.

I'm not a scientist, and I may be projecting a human interpretation onto what I witnessed. But here's a video filmed at the Dolphin Research Institute where my friend Judith worked. I'm most impressed by how the test dolphin responded to a problem with no solution: I'm not sure I would have thought of such a clever response! (Source:

Dolphins Answering Questions

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Parrots That Do More Than Mimic

Dolphins are large mammals with complex brains. I am not surprised to find evidence of sentience in dolphins.

However, I was surprised to learn that even animals with fairly simple brains can exhibit signs of intelligence.

A few years ago, my aunt interviewed Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the researcher who worked with Alex the Gray Parrot. Alex had a tray of simple shapes, and could verbally answer questions like "how many blue squares?" and "how many yellow triangles?" These questions required counting and an understanding of simple categories (color, shape) in combination. He also learned the names for a few simple objects. '

My aunt relates an amusing story. For his birthday, Alex was given a small cake. He was being stubborn -- so said the trainer -- and refused to say "cake" when asked what he wanted. Instead, he kept saying "corn." My aunt observed that after returning to his cage, he went over and pecked at some corn!

Here's a video of some of Pepperberg's parrots at work.

African Gray Parrots Answering Simple Questions

Caledonian Crows and Tool Use

Studies at the University of Oxford have shown that some species of crows are able to figure out surprisingly complex problems requiring tool use. The old fable about the crow or raven dropping pebbles in a pipe to raise the water level may not be so far-fetched after all!

These crows were not taught what to do with these tools. They were simply presented with them. In this video, a crow is faced with several options, and has to figure out which tools to use to get a treat. The problem requires three steps to extract a tool that will fit the hole. Notice it starts towards the container holding tool three, pauses to see if tool two is long enough, then moves to retrieve tool three.

Caledonian Crow Solves a Problem With Tools

Tool Use By Caledonian Crows in the Wild

This same research group found that Caledonian Crows use tools in the wild. I'm not surprised that primates have learned how to use sticks and stones as drills, picks and hammers, but a bird?

(Caledonian crows not only use sticks they have found, but will cut tools from stiff leaves or strip leaves to get a nicely-shaped twig.)

Wild Crow Filmed Using Tools

More Video Footage of Crows Using Tools

Following the studies done at the University of Oxford, naturalist David Attenborough covered the story with his team of animal videographers, and captured some truly amazing footage (on the BBC's "best of" channel).

Notice that this crow doesn't simply grab a twig; it creates a tool by snapping the stem off a leaf.

BBC: David Attenborough on Caledonian Crows

Cat Communication Research

So What Does It All Mean?

Only some species use tools in the wild. And only some animal species have been able to learn, invent, communicate, and demonstrate reasoning through simple question-and-answer experiments in lab conditions. But some animals show more than imitation, hardwired behavior, or learning specific tricks for a reward. They are exhibiting examples of simple thinking.

I find every one of these videos quite impressive, considering that as recently as fifty years ago, we accepted as a hard and fast rule that the difference between humans and animals is that we think, have language, and use tools, whereas animals do not. All three criteria have now been debunked.

It seems to me that sentience is not so much a yes/no dichotomy as a spectrum. It's like the amount of light cast by a light bulb on a smooth dimmer switch, as opposed to one on an on/off switch. Also, there may be qualitative differences between humans and other species' intelligence, like the difference between different kinds of music. I keep hoping that dolphin reseachers will crack the complex series of sounds wild dolphins use to communicate, so that we will have at least one other intelligent animal which can tell us not simply, do animals think? but what do they think?


Ellen (author) from California on July 10, 2013:

Thanks! I've been digging into paleontology lately; so much has been learned in the past few decades, and there's so many early forms of life that don't get much press because the big dinos like T-rex and triceratops have gotten all the glory. (Gorgonopsids, yikes!) But I'm just poking around in BBC documentaries and the like; I would love to read more from someone who really knows this stuff!

samowhamo on July 10, 2013:

I consider this proof that humans are not the best species on Earth that even though animal intelligence is not as complex as humans animals can understand and that given more evolution some could possibly replace humans as the dominant species of life on Earth. I found this hub quite interesting I myself am working on a hub about the different families of lizards (I write mostly about Paleontology and Herpetology my two greatest loves) good hub voted up and interesting.

Eiddwen from Wales on March 06, 2012:

A brilliant hub ;I enjoyed it all and now look forward to many more to read by you.

Take Care And Enjoy your day.


TrahnTheMan from Asia, Oceania & between on February 16, 2012:

Hi Greekgeek. I know what you mean but to be fair once I'd read the content and went to the references cited as evidence, it made a lot of sense to me. I did see an endorsement from Harry Prosen, apparently a former president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association and he has worked with bonobos at the Milwaukee County Zoo. I've got no interest in astrology that's for sure- if there is a God he gave us a brain and the ability to think rationally and question things around us and that's what's made me relatively intrigued with the ideas presented there, which I'm still investigating. Thanks for the informative hub and constructive comments.

Ellen (author) from California on February 16, 2012:

TrahnTheMan: I have some reservations about the page you link to -- it appears to try to bolster philosophy and a spiritual perspective with scientific "facts" and charts that don't entirely work as supporting evidence, much like someone trying to justify astrology with lots of numbers and charts that don't prove the points the astrologer is trying to make -- but thank you very much for your comment and insight!

Cindy A Johnson from Sevierville, TN on February 16, 2012:

I know my cats and my dog think. I know it's not as complex as human thought, but they do.

jfisher16 on February 16, 2012:

I recently saw on a video clip during a presentation about gorillas. it showed an adult female sharing a rock, the hammer, with an adult male, he had an "anvil", so he can smash something open. after he was finished he promptly returned it to the female. this is something scientist didn't believe they were capable of doing and was thought only humans were capable of sharing

TrahnTheMan from Asia, Oceania & between on February 15, 2012:

Great hub GreekGeek! I love the material about bonobos- they are really quite extraordinary. I've been fortunate enough to have visited the San Diego Zoo and observe those bonobos live for two days, which was an amazing experience. To have a living version of what our hominoid ancestors might have been like is absolutely remarkable and provides us with unique opportunities to better understand where we came from and account for why we are the way we are. The following article is one source I've found that contains some helpful and interesting discussion:

I'm voting this up!

Ellen (author) from California on February 15, 2012:

Great story!

Pets really are amazing. I've notice clear differences in intelligence even between different cats. We had a cat for years that would shamelessly sit up and beg for cheese. After he died, we got a smart, almost full-grown barn cat. As soon as we got her home, we held up the cheese to see if she'd beg for it. She got up on her haunches, yes, but then batted the cheese out of Mom's hand and went off to eat it! Also, when I was a kid, I tried sending a remote control car after this cat. It batted at the car, then left the car, walked over to me, and chomped on the remote control! That cat continually showed it was unusually intelligent. I've had other cats that could manage door handles or simple tricks, but that one actually appeared to be reasoning, planning ahead, and, perhaps, understanding some of what we said.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on February 15, 2012:

I think some of them do have cognitive thoughts and "plan for future events. " I once had a little dog that just loved to ride to the store with me and she NEVER missed the opportunity to "go." Once I was eating some sinful deviled ham and decided to quickly go to the store for something. I sat the dish on the coffee table, asked if she wanted to "go for a ride." She refused. "That's strange," I thought!But when I go t back, I understood. She had devoured my deviled ham! She had planned for a future event.I call that cognitive behavior, not behaviorism!

Great Hub on a great subject!

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