Animals in the Wild - AWI Quarterly 2006 Summer


Do apes share our ability to plan ahead? A new study showing bonobos and orangutans can select, transport and save a suitable tool for future use is making scientists rethink cognitive evolution.

Scientists have long believed future planning is beyond the capabilities of animals, but studies published in May issues of the journal. Science show that a variety of animals can-and do-think ahead. Usually, studies of animal intelligence involve immediate gratification, but new research at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany shows both bonobos and orangutans remember to carry the right tools to retrieve treats one to 14 hours later. And according to an experiment at Cambridge University, resourceful scrub jays were observed hiding food a second time when they thought a rival was watching. The Cambridge team reported that the scrub jays remembered which birds watched them hide food and used this knowledge to minimize the risk that one of these observers might pilfer their caches. Anticipating future needs by remembering past events contradicts the notion that such cognitive behavior is uniquely human.

The Right Medicine
SHEEP Observations of animals in the wild eating foods to self-medicate abound, but what about animals raised as livestock? Can they be taught to self-medicate? To answer this question, researchers from Utah State University fed sheep three different foods, each spiked with a substance that caused a different kind of illness-acid stomach, poor digestion or low calcium intake. After eating, the sheep were presented with three other foods, each blended with a single antidote for one of the ailments. Their report, published online in the May issue of the journal Animal Behavior, reveals these intelligent animals quickly learned to choose the right antidote and could remember the correct choice five months later.

Grammar Skills
Groundbreaking studies show starlings can learn complex grammatical rules and sheep can choose the correct medicated food for what ails them.
STARLINGS While linguists argue over the uniqueness of human language, European starlings at the University of California, San Diego, have demonstrated their ability to process complex grammatical forms by learning recursion, a pattern thought to be exclusive to humans. Take the simple sentence: "My dog is black." In recursion, humans are able to recognize that same sentence in more complex forms, such as, "My dog, who ran into the house, is black." A parallel situation was set up using songs composed of "warbles" and "rattles." The study, published in the April 27 issue of Nature, shows the birds were not simply memorizing complex sequences, but could distinguish between different patterns. Essentially, they were applying rules to solve the task. "The more closely we understand what non-human animals are capable of," said psychologist and starling study researcher Timothy Gentner, "the richer our world becomes."

Stringing Words Together
MONKEYS British researchers report that after three years of study, putty-nosed monkeys in Nigeria are able to string together a simple "sentence." The monkeys combined different alarm calls into more complex call sequences, creating new meanings-a linguistic ability thought to be uniquely human. The study, from the May 18 issue of Nature, suggests basic syntax may be more widespread in primates than previously thought.

Trap Not Soft on Animal Victim
Harley, a chow-pomeranian mix, is a recent victim of the cruel and indiscriminate steel-jaw leghold trap..
Recently on a California beach at Vandenberg Air Force base, 10-year-old Harley joined the growing list of domestic animals harmed by steel-jaw leghold traps. Charles Wilson was walking his beloved companion when the dog stepped into the jaws of a "padded" leghold trap buried in the sand, without any warning signs or flags. According to Wilson, Harley screamed "bloody murder" when the jaws clamped down on his paw. The dog was in such distress that he bit Wilson's hand as he attempted to free Harley's paw. "He is the most loving and kind dog and had never bitten me before," Wilson said. "He was helpless and in so much pain that he just panicked."

Wilson could not open the jaws of the trap, but was able to rush Harley to the local fire department, where firefighters pried the trap open with a crow bar. One of twelve set to catch coyotes on the beach, the trap was placed in an area commonly used by people and their pets. In California, the use of leghold traps is illegal, but an exception is made for "federal, state, county or municipal employees or their duly authorized agents in the extraordinary case where [it] is the only method available to protect human health or safety." The traps were removed from the beach shortly after this incident.

 "Living Fossil" Discovered in Laos
A previously unknown rodent has been discovered in a Laotian hunter's market by Robert Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Locals call the animal a "rock rat," but Western scientists have dubbed it Laonastes aenigmamus, meaning stone-dwelling enigmatic mouse. Researchers originally thought the animal was a new type of mammal, but they now consider it to be, "a fossil come to life." The Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Mary Dawson, a paleontologist, recognized the rodent as belonging to the Diatomyidae, a family that was thought to have been extinct for at least 11 million years. The animal is also important because it "represents tantalizing support for the theory that many mammals evolved in Asia and later colonized other continents, as its closest living relative is the gundis-a guinea pig-like rodent of northern Africa," according to the March 2006 Scientific American.