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Apes Use Tools does this Mean they are Intelligent?
April 27, 2006 13:21


People often consider animals, which use various tools, to be extraordinary intelligent, but sometimes our "little brothers and sisters" use tools in such a way that drops a hint of doubt in this common point of view. The ability to use tools sometimes has no correlation with intellect. Moreover, it varies greatly between particular individuals of the same species. Animal tool activities differ from that of human - they ritualize and form stable associations very quickly, which can be seen in persistent repeating of actions, even if they have no sense in current situation.

Times, when people considered tool production and use to be unique human skill, have passed long ago. Nowadays many animal species are known to use tools in their ordinary life. They are able to use natural objects, as well as treated ones (sticks without knots and leaves, for example).

Getting rid of anthropocentric views is hard for people who deal with animal behaviour. This can possibly explain popular opinion about tool activities being the best indicators for general level of intellect ("cognitive abilities"). This opinion is so popular because human beings achieved their best in this very field. How accurate and correct such views are?

Not only apes have various tool activities, other mammals do as well. Elephants, for instance, use branches for brushing away flies. If the branch is too large, these grey giants put it on the ground and adjust its size by means of their trunk. Some rodents use stones for burrow digging. Kalans (sea beavers) use big stones - "hammers" - for rending shellfish off their rock habitats and smaller stones for smashing their shells. Bears use sticks for shaking down fruits from the trees; polar bears are known to kill seals by means of stones and ice blocks.

Birds are also able to use tools. Egyptian vultures throw stones to ostrich eggs to smash them. Some herons bait fish by throwing feathers and maggots to water. Miami Zoo dwelling herons steal food from zookeepers and use it to bait fish.

Apes still appear to be most talented animals in tool use. They use stones to smash shells, nuts and bird eggs; they wipe dirty fruits with leaves; they chew leaves and use them as sponges to get water from holes; they get insects out of cracks by means of sharp sticks; they throw stones at their enemies.

Scientists showed that in captivity apes quickly develop various and complex tool activities, which can never be observed in nature. But then first oddity arises: why apes rarely or never use their abilities in nature? Only chimpanzees use tools in nature systematically, other three ape species (bonobo, gorilla and orangutan), which are closely related to human beings, seem to be not interested.

The second oddity is that almost no correlation was detected between "technology" index and other intellect indicators. No doubt chimpanzees are most "technologically" advanced apes, but tests showed that bonobo are most intelligent ones despite they almost never use tools in nature. Note that bonobo are most "socialized" among the apes, the factor many scientists consider to be a leading one in apes' intellectual development.

Wide range of individual differences in "tool use" among representatives of the same species is the third oddity. In natural populations "geniuses of technology" seem to coexist with "technology fools" without any noticeable difference. An ordinary monkey (or even a bird) sometimes shows better results than a chimpanzee. Famous clever monkeys (gorilla Koko, bonobo Kenzi, for instance) are no way ordinary apes - they are geniuses.

In different situation same animal can act like a genius or like a bonehead. Such striking contracts are often described in various studies.

Some scientists think that animal tool activities are anticipated by estimation of facts, search for appropriate objects and consequences consideration, thus said activities give integral intellect appraisal. Possibly they can, but we should admit that "intellect" (as humans interpret this term) is not a crucial survival factor for most animals. Intellect is rather a side effect of some more important behavioural mechanisms. Otherwise, natural populations would have been less variable in this aspect. But do humans behave in a different way?

Animal tool use has one distinctive feature - fast fixation and ritualization of methods found once. Animals do not like to adjust their skills to changing conditions.

Scientists gave Rafael, the chimpanzee, a leaky cup and a ball to plug the hole. Rafael had no idea of how to plug the hole, until he accidentally spat the ball into the cup. The ball plugged the hole, the leaking stopped and the chimpanzee remembered it. Since that accident he used the ball to plug the hole, but he always spat it into the cup. Then scientists gave him a cup without a hole, but Rafael kept spitting the ball in to it. Finally, when he was offered a choice between a leaky cup and a whole one, the chimpanzee chose the leaky cup without hesitation.

Some scientists think that such "stupid" behaviour is the other side of fast learning, which can be achieved through formation of stable associative bonds. Perhaps, if animals weren't able to learn so fast, they would never have such stable stereotypes. And if they got rid of their stereotypes, their behaviour would have become much more "intellectual".

Several experimental studies confirm this hypothesis. Researchers offered the "trap pipe" test to birds and monkeys: they had to use a stick or a piece of wire to get bait from a pipe, which had a trap preventing the bait from falling out. An animal should have guessed to push the bait from the other side of the pipe. The task appeared to be very difficult to all testees, however some birds and monkeys were able to find a solution.

In the next stage of the experiment the scientists turned the pipe upside down. The trap became useless, and there was no more need to use the other side of the pipe. Not a single animal managed to understand this fact. Even "clever ones", who showed splendid results in previous tests, kept pushing the bait from the other side of the pipe away from the trap. In other words, they kept doing something they learned despite it had no more sense. When scientists replaced glass tube with one that wasn't transparent, one bird noticed the change and acted appropriately.

Perhaps, this is what makes us human. We care less about dogmas and stereotypes and make our brain work somehow more often.

Rewritten and translated by Kizilova Anna,

Sources: Alexander Markov and

Tags: Russian science     

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