Animal Smarts

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Animal Smarts

By John Thompson on Animals and Society Institute

While we anticipate that someday we will have the chance to connect with another civilization from another galaxy, there are entire nations of living beings right here that we are just becoming acquainted with. Perhaps someday we will learn to communicate with our fellow earthlings.

The latest "animal news" floating across the world media concerns a clever species of octopus that uses coconut shells as a shelter. Far from being just an opportunist, this cephalopod nests two shells together, straddles them so that his/her eight tentacles reach the ground, then trots off to a suitable location. (A video on YouTube shows how this works.)

"There is a fundamental difference between picking up a nearby object and putting it over your head as protection versus collecting, arranging, transporting (awkwardly), and assembling portable armor as required," said Mark Norman of the Museum Victoria in Australia in the December 15, 2009 Science Daily.

It may surprise some people who only know octopuses through Hollywood horror films that they are rather complex creatures. For instance, marine researchers have documented a range of what we call emotions felt by octopuses. Far from hiding those feelings, some cephalopods express them blatantly through almost instantaneous changes of color and skin texture. That does not imply that their moods or emotions parallel our own, but simply that they are not psychologically inert.

They use the same color changing abilities to blend in with their surroundings. Furthermore, aquarium staff members swear that octopuses can recognize individual people, and that they have favorites.

Other studies do try to quantify the animals' brain power and they suggest a competency that surpasses all other invertebrate. Furthermore, the structure and functioning of their brain is similar to that of vertebrates, including our own. This has given researchers insight into human brain capabilities.

So do they think about what we think about? Well, perhaps in one sense. University of California at Berkeley researchers have documented courtship behavior such as flirting and handholding. Ok, tentacle holding.

But getting back to our coconut shell gathering friends, the Melbourne scientists said, "Ultimately, the collection and use of objects by animals is likely to form a continuum stretching from insects to primates, with the definition of tools providing a perpetual opportunity for debate. However, the discovery of this octopus tiptoeing across the sea floor with its prized coconut shells suggests that even marine invertebrates engage in behaviors that we once thought the preserve of humans."

That last comment leads to my point. We are living in what is for me an exciting era of discovering how many of our assumptions about other species are misconceived. It isn't just the primates, our closest relatives as some like to say, that have qualities that are "human-like." Frogs, insects, prairie dogs, of course our four-legged pets, and even insects are showing us that they have a far greater range of intelligence and feelings than imagined. They also have cultures of their own. And as the veil is lifted it is all there for us to discover, marvel at, and welcome.

While we anticipate that someday we will have the chance to connect with another civilization from another galaxy, there are entire nations of living beings right here that we are just becoming acquainted with. Perhaps someday we will learn to communicate with our fellow earthlings. The computerized translation programs evolving from the SETI project may help with understanding members of a society that is truly foreign to us.

Then again, we may never break the code and have a real conversation with a coyote. A badger may be totally uninterested in anything we have to say. Yet there is another level of communing that only requires patient observation, quiet receptivity, respect, and gratitude for whatever another species allows us to witness. Perhaps simply marveling at the discovery of an octopus collecting shells and appreciating its unique intelligence is sufficiently fulfilling.