Do we need to reassess animal emotion and intelligence?

IStock_000036366478SmallWhat kind of emotions do animals feel? Indeed, can animals feel emotions at all?

From early on in their studies, biologists are warned against anthropomorphism – attributing human emotions to animals. Yet, many of us have will seen the way a pet dog greets their owner after a period of separation or read how elephants grieve for the loss of a family member.

Now, several streams of emerging evidence suggests that we may have to re-assess how we view animals’ cognition and behaviour. Indeed, research suggests that elephants exhibit a wide variety of behaviours, including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and language.

We have previously looked at advanced behaviours such as tool use in animals – see our blog Are Humans The Only Tool Users? Now it seems that animals may also be capable of understanding the purpose behind some human tools – and then destroying them. 

In Rwanda, it has been reported that gorillas have become “demolition experts” as they cooperate to dismantle poachers’ snares. Four young gorillas have been observed disabling a snare after it had killed an elderly gorilla. While adult gorillas have been seen destroying traps in the past, scientists have never seen this kind of activity in gorillas at such a young age.

Furthermore, this behaviour looks set to continue because apes are known for teaching acquired skills to other members of their groups, including the use of tools. 

The behaviour not only suggests hitherto unexpected cognitive skill, it may also imply a level of empathy for other members of the group. Although the gorillas could have simply avoided the snares once they became aware of them, they instead chose to work together to disable them, possibly to avoid injury to other gorillas. 

This is not so far fetched when you consider that chimpanzees – apes known for their intelligence and social behaviour – have been confirmed to exhibit so-called “pro-social behaviour”. 

In an experiment at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, two chimps separated by a mesh fence were given the option to share food with the other chimp, or grab the food just for themselves. More than half the time both chimps acted altruistically, opting to share their food with the other. Animal behaviourists suggest that this confirms that chimps pay attention to the social welfare of their fellows. 

More primitive primates such as lemurs from Madagacar are known for taking part in ritualistic behaviors when a member of their family dies. Although less intelligent than the Great Apres, lemurs are highly social animals and show significant emotional awareness.

Even “lowly” crustaceans may be able to experience some emotions, according to a recent study published in the journal Science. Researchers in France found that crayfish seem to show anxiety, a feeling previously thought to be too complex for such primitive animals. It follows a number of studies that suggest that crustaceans can also feel pain.

Animals and language

It seems we may also have to reassess our view that humans are the only species capable of language. Dolphins are highly intelligent and prolific communicators but researchers are not yet clear whether they actually have a “language”. There is some evidence that they do, but this has yet to be established. Evidence for language includes the fact that individual dolphins have unique names or call signs, their vocalising tends to be interactive, and the pattern of the sounds they produce follows that of human languages. 

With the Great Apes, the situation is more established. A famous chimpanzee called Washoe was the first non-human we were able to communicate with; she understood and spoke some 350 words of American Sign Language. There is one particularly touching anecdote: when one of her caretakers had a miscarriage, she told Washoe. The chimp reportedly looked her in the eyes and signed “cry” by running a finger down her caretaker's cheek.

Koko the gorilla is another ape linguist. Born on 4 July 1971, she is able to understand more than 1,000 signs based on American Sign Language and understand approximately 2,000 words of spoken English, according to her long-term trainer Francine “Penny” Patterson.

Take a moment to watch this endearing video of Koko and let us know what you think about her ability to communicate and express her emotions.

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