It is not just man’s closer primate relatives that exhibit brainpower. Dolphins, dogs and elephants are teaching us a few lessons, too.
Dolphins are so distantly related to humans that it’s been 95 million years since we had even a remotely common ancestor. Yet when it comes to intelligence, social behavior and communications, some researchers say dolphins come as close to humans as our ape and monkey cousins.
“They understand concepts like zero, abstract concepts. They do everything that chimpanzees do and bonobos can do,” said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University who specializes in dolphin research.
In recent years, animal researchers have found that thought processes in critters aren’t a matter of how closely related they are to humans. You don’t have to be a primate to be smart.
Dolphin brains involve completely different wiring from primates, especially in the neocortex, which is central to reasoning and conscious thought.
Yet, “the more you learn about them, the more you realize that they do have the capacity and characteristics that we think of when we think of a person,” she said.
Dolphins recognize themselves in the mirror and have a sense of social identity. They interact and comprehend the health and feelings of other dolphins so fast it as if they are online with each other, Marino said.
Animal intelligence “is not a linear thing,” said Duke University researcher Brian Hare, who studies bonobos, which are one of man’s closest relatives, and dogs, which are not.
“Think of it like a toolbox,” he said. “Some species have an amazing hammer. Some species have an amazing screwdriver.”
For dogs, a primary tool is their obsessive observation of humans and ability to understand human communication, Hare said. For example, dogs follow human pointing so well that they understand it whether it is done with a hand or a foot; chimps do not.
Then there are elephants. In a classic cooperation game, in which animals only get food if two animals pull opposite ends of a rope at the same time, elephants learned to do that much quicker than chimps, said researcher Josh Plotnik, head of elephant research at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand.
They do better than monkeys at empathy and rescue, he said.
“There is something in the environment, in the evolution of this species that is unique,” he added.