Strange But True: Animals, birds also as smart as we are


Q: If "humans aren't the only brainiacs," as Discover magazine put it, what species in the wild kingdom might fit the bill?

A: A smart start would be those clever chimps that stack boxes high enough to reach a dangling bunch of bananas, says Discover's Kristin Ohlson. A recent study by Harvard researchers Alexandra Rosati and Felix Warneken suggests that chimps also possess some basic cognitive skills for cooking. The researchers gave them two choices: they could place raw food slices either in a device that would return them uncooked or in another that would cook them. The chimps clearly favored the cooked food and even moved raw slices from the one device over to the "oven."

Now on to "dolphin-speak." In an experiment by Hunter College comparative psychologist Diana Reiss, dolphins gathered at her underwater "vending machine" that displayed a keyboard with different symbols, each key emitting a specific whistle when pushed and delivering a ball, hoop or rub as a treat. Reiss was intrigued by how the dolphins "imitated the keys' whistles and even combined the whistles as they invented new games involving both hoops and balls."

And, "ravens, it seems, never forget a beaked face," says Ohlson. The wild birds live in groups until they pair up with a mate, then the two set up "a solitary, conjugal life." Yet, in the lab, where pairs are kept in separate aviaries, the ravens remember their old group friends and recognize and react familiarly to their recorded calls.

Speaking on animal cognition, primatologist Franz de Waal suggests we humans should forget about a hierarchical scale that places us at the top. Instead think of a bush, with the various species occupying different and diverging branches. "You can't put them on a simple scale, because all animals are very smart in what they need to survive."

Q: Are you part of the electric skateboard craze, aka the hoverboard? If you have some spare change, what's on the market to step your game up a notch or two?

A: ArcaSpace Corp makes "a true hovercraft that rides on air like the one piloted by Marty McFly in 'Back to the Future Part II' (1989)," reports IEEE Spectrum magazine. The 36 battery-powered electric fans on the ArcaBoard run from three to six minutes (depending on the rider's weight) and have sufficient thrust to carry someone weighing 242 pounds at speeds approaching 12 miles per hour.

Price tag: US $20,000.

Q: Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had the same tools and Neanderthals actually had a larger brain than our own. How then to explain their demise?

A: As archaeologist Miki Ben-Dor looked at the bodily structure of Neanderthals, he found them to have barrel-shaped chests with wide torsos, says Abigail Tucker in Smithsonian magazine. Living in places like the Polar Urals and Siberia some 300,000 to 30,000 years ago, with no fruits or vegetables in the heart of a tundra winter, the Neanderthals likely subsisted on a diet of fat and protein. But since prey animals were probably lean themselves, this high-protein diet would have been tough to metabolize. Ben-Dor theorizes that over the millennia, Neanderthals developed enlarged livers and kidneys to remove toxic byproducts, as well as chests and pelvises that widened to accommodate these beefed-up organs.

It seems probable that Neanderthals hunted mammoths and other large animals, which required greater strength, but less energy and speed to kill. Once the mammoths vanished, however, the burly Neanderthals couldn't chase down smaller, swifter prey as well as the narrow-hipped, agile humans. The rest of the story you know.

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