Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Animal Intelligence: Both Sides of the Coin
By Grace Chen
As one of the few species able to articulate, human beings are often considered the most intelligent of all animals. However, many species are able to learn. But what are the repercussions of this?
Fancy Flies and Resourceful Rooks
Scientific experiments have been conducted on a variety of animal and insect species to test for the presence of intelligence or ability to learn. Recent studies performed in Switzerland with Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly, reveal these tiny winged beasts do show evidence of learning or conditioning. After several generations, flies in one particular study were conditioned to avoid jam laced with quinine, a bitter compound.
Another experiment in the United Kingdom centered on the British rook, a member of the crow family. The birds were presented with a small basket of food placed within an upright, cylindrical tube. They were also provided as straight piece of malleable wire. Without conditioning or training of any kind, the birds used their beaks to form the wire into a hook, which could then be used to retrieve the basket and its contents. Although some crow family members are documented as using sticks to "dig" for food, these experiments are the first evidence of rook problem-solving skills and the ability to use tools.
Apes have long been treasured for their entertainment value. Because of their humanoid likeness, we see a bit or ourselves in their actions, making their antics all the more lovable. Chimps, orangutans, and other simians are especially popular in television and film, having appeared in a number of productions. They are also sought after as laboratory subjects and can communicate via sign language and computers. The ability of apes to convey emotion is also well documented.
Smarter Isn't Always Better
Although it would seem to be advantageous to have an intellectual leg up on other species, that is not always the case. One Swiss experiment, for example, illustrated the downfalls of learning. They created a "smarter" generation of flies able to avoid a bitter jelly, but these flies died sooner than their unconditioned counterparts. These findings suggest energy expenditure associated with the learned behavior.
In the case of primates, animals used for entertainment and study purposes are often removed from their mothers at an early age. These juveniles are made to participate in scientific and entertainment industries until reaching the age of 8 or 9. At this time, though they are still quite young, the animals are considered too difficult or dangerous to continue working on sets or within labs. Although there are a few dedicated sanctuaries for these "discarded," subjects, for the most part the animals are placed into captivity in zoos or farmed out as pets, with no care or thought given to the well being of the creature itself. Ironically, though prized for humanistic qualities, these animals are treated in a truly inhumane fashion once they've outlived their "usefulness."
Intellect is a trait prized by human beings, and often sought after in other members of the animal kingdom. However, intelligence and learning ability are not without price.
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