Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity

Eugene Linden has written several books and articles about animal intelligence and environmental issues. This sequel to his The Parrot's Lament discusses scientific concepts and interesting puzzles related to animal intelligence. He has interesting tales of clever octopuses, orangutan escape artists, and penguins mimicking scientists in Antarctica. Observations of empathy, deception, and cooperation led Linden to focus, in The Octopus and the Orangutan, "on what intelligence does." I have not read The Parrot's Lament yet, but I probably will.

On the occasion in question, the little orangutan (named Siti) was trying to eat a coconut, an arduous process that involved chewing off the husk and then poking a finger through one of the "eyes" to get at the milk and meat. After chewing and poking through one eye, the little orang got tired and handed the coconut to an Indonesian named Nian. Russon was observing the scene and saw several split remains of coconut scattered around, suggesting that the assistant had cut open coconuts with his machete for the young orangutan on previous occasions.

This was a no-no, since the animals would not have access to room service in the wild. With Russon present, the assistant was not going to risk breaking the rules and sheepishly handed the coconut back to the young female. The young orang made another half-hearted try and then handed it back to the assistant. He handed it back to Siti. Now the little orangutan was getting exasperated. Why wasn't this guy getting the message! So, instead of handing him the coconut immediately, she picked up a stick and, wielding it like a machete, smashed it down on top of the coconut in exact imitation of how a human would crack open a coconut with a machete. Then she handed the coconut back to the assistant, lest there was any doubt about what she wanted...

Apart from demonstrating Siti's ability to communicate her wants, Russon argues that this example also shows an ability to reflect on and alter her behavior to achieve a particular purpose. When simply handing over the coconut did not work, Siti sat back and figured out a way to alter the program to get the message across.

I love learning about animal intelligence and interspecies communication. I think of birds, frogs, and insects that sing, or other animal vocalizing and behavior, and am convinced that humans are not the only species with language. There's an injured vulture at a local nature center that likes to dance with me. She'd probably dance with others if they'd just give her a chance. I hope you give this book a chance. It's worth it!

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