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So who's a clever boy then?

Dumb animals? No way,says the concluding part of Clever Dicks,which this week narrows the field for the title of animal Mastermind

Gareth Huw Davies

Cartoon1 Caring canines
Dogs are descended from wolves. Breeders have isolated their best, wild qualities, fast forwarded evolution with selective breeding, and given us pooches that do the supermarket shopping for disabled people and collect their money from the cashpoint. The smartest seem to solve problems using insight, not purely by trial and error. In Clever Dicks, Frodo the labrador loves washdays. He empties the washing machine for his disabled owner Stephanie. Then he tugs the basket full of wet things into the garden where he gently nudges them over to Stephanie to hang up. Forgotten the pegs? Leave it to Frodo. And the busy housedog still has time to open the door and let in the cat.

Literary lions
The clever, communal self-preservation strategy of some Californian sea lions is now a tourist attraction.They used to haul themselves up on rocks, but the incoming tide had a habit of invading their sleep. And great white sharks added a nightmare dimension. Their solution is to bed down in safety on floating pontoons in San Francisco harbour. The traditional image of the circus sea lion - balancing a ball on its nose - is for losers. Real sea lions read. They can tell their A, B, C from their 1,2,3. In a test they were shown a letter, and to win a fish they had to press a board - the one with a (different) letter- right; or a number - wrong. No need to phone a friend, or ask the audience. They were right every time.


Safe -cracking squirrels
Grey squirrels are old troupers on the clever animals circuit. You loved them in the BBC series Daylight Robbery. So what keeps them at the top? Dexterous front paws, an amazing curiosity for anything new, and a dogged determination to never, ever give up. Where you see a bird-feeder full of nuts, squirrels behold a feast that's just asking for freedom. In the intelligence trials, garden squirrels were let loose to roadtest the latest fiendishly ingenious bird feeding models, all finished to Fort Knox standards of impenetrability. The squirrels took a first-half drubbing but once they worked out the defence, there was only one result. We can't wait for the rematch.

Dexterous dolphins
In the wild they are credited with lifesaving, baby-sitting and providing therapy to sick people. In captivity they perform intricate routines and understand complicated spoken instructions. It's a product of their sociable nature and a long youth which is full of learning. Give them the handbook and they could probably rule the world. Captive dolphins were shown a Perspex tank with a fish in it. Two foreign objects were added -a weight and a pointy thing. They worked out that putting the weight in the top of the box released a trap door, which then allowed them to probe the pointy thing into a panel, thus releasing the fish. Now the dolphins want the real test to begin.


Arms and the octopus
Octopuses are the primates of the undersea world, having the biggest brain of any invertebrate (creature without backbone), with extremely sharp eyesight and amazing memories. This puts them among the star problem - solvers of the wild. They are also great cowards - the ability to know when to run away is another sign of cleverness. So does helping itself to a crab from a crab pot present much of a challenge? Too easy. Squirming through a Perspex maze for a fish? Piece of cake. In the end this touchy-feely cephalopod was shown a fish in a bottle, which was inside a second bottle. It gave it the full octo-twist and unscrewed both tops in minutes to extract its tasty reward.

Precocious parrots
The kea, an alpine parrot from the mountains of New Zealand, is a very bright bird indeed. It will investigate anything new to see if it can he pulled out or taken apart and maybe eaten. Tugging the laces from walkers' boots is a speciality. Keas also have an interesting spin on car maintenance. They can take visitors' cars apart - mirrors, lights, hubcaps, wipers, the lot. A kea says: "This BBC geezer turns up on our mountain with a tube full of little trapdoors. We pull a few levers and some cheese falls out. Simple. We do five more they thought were harder and harder. Easy. Last is this long tube with eight rods to pull, levers to yank and buttons to press. Took no time. Are humans stupid?"

Whose a clever boy then?

Question How do parrots talk or speak? Are their larynxes, tongues or brains different to other birds? Margaret Turpin , Malborough Wiltshire

Answer Parrots are unusual. In most birds, sounds are created by a set of vibrating membranes in a pair of syrinxes ­ the lower larynx or voice organ in birds. One is found at the top of each bronchus coming from the lungs. But parrots have only one syrinx, situated at the bottom of the windpipe just above where the two bronchi meet. This is similar to humans, who also have only one sound-producing organ: the larynx. Unlike most other birds, parrots also have very long and muscular tongues, which may be important in modifying sounds. Using the throat, mouth and tongue, parrots can alter dominant sound frequencies or "formants" to give the sound they want to make. For example, a parrot can make an "ee" rather than an "ah", sound by opening its beak wider and pushing its tongue farther forward. The parrot also has forebrain areas involved in vocal learning and control of vocalisation that are not found in other birds. Broad parallels can be drawn with similar areas specialised to deal with language in humans. That helps explain why parrots have such versatile vocalisations, but there is a debate over whether parrots can learn anything similar to language. They can utter "sentences" consisting of words in an order that makes grammatical sense. However, it is unlikely that they are using syntax in the way humans do. It seems far more probable that they are following inflexible "rule-governed behaviour": that is, they understand that a certain order of sounds must be adhered to in order to achieve the task in question. Much of the debate over the level of parrot language ability has been driven by the remarkable research of Irene Pepperberg and an African grey parrot called Alex (New Scientist, 15 January 2000, p 40). With thanks to Erich D. Jarvis, , The department of neurobiology Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, US

So who's a clever boy then?

Gift of the gab:N'Kisi the African Grey

Parrot 'knows 950 words, cracks jokes and makes up sentences'


A PARROT with a 950-word vocabulary, a sense of humour and alleged powers of telepathy is forcing experts to reconsider the ability of animals and humans to communicate.
Six-year-old African grey N'kisi is able to use words in context and verbs with past, present and future tenses.
Like young children, he reportedly resorts to creativity when he does not know the exact word he wants - for example, saying 'flied' for 'flew' and inventing a 'pretty smell medicine' to describe aromatherapy oils used by his owner, New York artist Aimee Morgana.

N'kisi also has a dry sense of humour. When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he apparently joked: 'You got to put this bird on the camera'. He also associates photos with real people or objects. When he first met primatologist Dr Jane Goodall after seeing her pictured with apes, he greeted her with: 'Got a chimp?'
Dr. Goodall says N'kisi is an 'out-standing example of interspecies communication' - but new studies suggest his skills may not stop at verbal. In a test reported in next month's BBC Wildlife Magazine, N'kisi and Mr Morgana were put in separate rooms and filmed as she randomly opened envelopes containing picture cards. The bird, bred in captivity, chose appropriate words for the pictures three times more often than chance would allow. He even said: 'What ya doing on the phone?' to a picture of a man with a phone. Prof Donald Broom, of Cambridge University veterinary school, said: 'The more we look at the cognitive abilities of animals, the more advanced they appear.'
[The Metro Jan27,2004]





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Radio Times 29 April - 5 May 2000 File Info: Created 27/10/2000 Updated 22/9/2015 Page Address: