Notes from Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

p. 16 “Tecla [elephant] was communicating. ‘The humans are getting between you and your baby; come and do something’… When an individual knows another’s relationship to a third – as Tecla knows who the baby’s mother is -it’s called ‘understanding third party relationships’. Primates understand third-party relationships too,and so do wolves, hyenas,dophines,birds of the crow family, and at least some parrots. A parrot, say, can act jealous of its keeper’s spouse. When the vervet monkeys that are common around camp here an infant’s distress call, they instantly look to the infant’s mother….When free-living dolphin mothers want young ones to stop interacting with humans, the mothers sometimes direct a tailslap at the human who has the baby’s attention… When the dawdling youngsters are interacting with dolphin researcher Denise Herzing’s graduate assistants, their mothers will ocasiionally direct these – what could we call them reprimands? -at Herzing herself. This shows that thedolphins understand that Dr Herzing is the leader of all the humans in the water. For free-living creatures to perceive rank order in humans – just astonishing.”

p. 22 “Honeybees will interrupt a colleague’s waggledance if they’ve experienced trouble at the same flower source, such as a brush with a predator like a spider. Honey bees subjected by researchers to simulated attack show, said researchers, ‘the same hallmarks of negative emotions that we find in humans’. Even more intriguingly, honeybee brains contain the same ‘thrill-seeker hormones that in human brains drive some people to consistently seek novelty. If those hormones deliver some tingle of pleasure or motivation to the bees, it means bees are conscious. Certain highly social wasps can recognize individuals by their faces, something previously believed the sole domain of a few elite mammals.”

p. 85 “African elephants have one particular alarm call that appears to be their word for ‘Bees!’. They run from the sound of buzzing bees, shaking their head as thye go. Elephants also run away shaking their heads if they merelyhear a recording of elephants calling as they run from bees. They don’t head-shake when plated recorded voices of people… Zoo elephants in the United States who’ve never been swarmed by African honeybees do not respond to the sound of bees. Older elephants in Africa respond directly, while young ones look to their elders and copy their response… A friend of mine saw impalas run away when they heard elephants scream at a pack of wild dogs; her guide said impalas never run when elephants are screaming at people or each other. If true, that means that elephants say specific things that impala understand.”

p. 89 “Herman, who studied captive dolphins in Hawaii, found that dolphins understood the difference between ‘Get the ring from John and give it to Susan’ and ‘Get the ring from Susan and give it to John.’ They understand syntax. What most other animals don’t have – and I think we can be pretty sure of this – is complex syntax. Complex syntax characterizes human language. Dolphins mayuse some simple syntax of their own in the wild. Some apes — especially bonobos — can learn to use human syntax. That means something very striking: it means that these creatures have the capacities to mentally manipulate parts of human syntax and respond appropriately … It would make no sense …if it didn’t use syntax with others of its species or with itself.”

p. 102 “The Masai do not eat wild meat; the wild ones are considered ‘God’s cattle’… the Maasai did not tolerate poachers from outside and frequently blew their cover. Thus the Maasai kept poaching in check and Amboseli’s elephants relatively safe – and relatively free to move – compared to elephants in many places. .. Wildlife populations shrank and shrivelled as Europeans took land and shot the animals. Then emerging European pressure to conserve wildlife focused on Maasai lands, which held the highest concentration of free-living animals in Kenya. … They believe that only humans and elephants have souls… Traditionally,when the Maasai encounter the bones of a human or an elephant, they place grass on them to signal respect. This they do with no other animals.”

p. 109 “In the 1960s, Iain Douglas-Hamilton found, in deep forest, a trail smoothly beaten down and at least 12 feet wide. It might have been thousands of years old. Elephant roads once connected the continent, water source to water source. When humans arose, we followed roads made by elephants across Africa, and when the time came for us to venture beyond, we probably traveled out, too, on elephant roads. Now most such ancient roads have fallen silent. Where elephants survive, they cling to islands of habitat cut off from other populations. For centuries now, they’ve been under siege. At the dawn of the Roman Empire, elephants thoroughly inhabited Africa. From Mediterranean shores to the Cape of Good Hope and from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, except for the bleakest lozenge of the Sahara, elephants trod… By a thousand years ago, elephants had already been wiped from North Africa. During the 1800s, southern Africa’s elephants were splintered and isolated… East Africa’s coastal elephants were swiped too… By 1900, the animal that never forgets was forgotten by most children born in West Africa. The 1970s and 80s brought the perfect storm of rising human densities, increasingly deadly weapons,escalating ivory prices, widening international markets, and worsening governments…. Since Roman times,humans have reduced Africa’s elephant population by perhaps 99 percent. Africa’s elephants are gone from 90 percent of the lands they roamed as recently as 1800, when, despite earlier losses, an estimated 26 million elephants still trod the continent. Now they number perhaps 400,000.”

p. 192 “wolf kills often attract ravens  by the dozens. Yet if humans put out elk carcasses, ravens generally ignore them. Ravens don’t trust humans. The memory of the poisoned carcasses must still be a lesson in the raven educational curriculum. In Yellowstone…they’ve taught themselves something new, how to unzip hikers’packs. The relative size of their forebrain – the ‘thinking part’ – in ravens andtheir relatives is significantly larger than in other birds, with the exception of some parrots.  A raven’s brain is the same size, relative to its bodyweight, as a chimpanzee’s.”

p. 224″we’re still uncovering dogs’ hidden abilities. At least one border collie responds to an unfamiliar word by choosing an unfamiliar object. Asked to ‘Get the dax!’ the dog apparently reasons along these lines: ‘There’s a ball here but she didn’t ask for a ball. ‘Dax’ must mean this other thing that I’ve never seen before’. Such skills of inference, scientists write, ‘have only been demonstrated previously for language learning in human children’.

“Even dogs have perceptual gaps though. Non-human great apes are good at inferring the location of hidden food by, for instance, noticing that one board is lying flat and another is tilted up, indicating that there is something under it. Dogs are terrible at that (that’s a visual clue; dogs excell at searching by smell. Ravens … are able to figure out which os several crossed strings is connected to the treat. Primates do such tasks easily. Dogs are terrible at this, too (again, it’s purely visual.)

p.270 “Years ago, while doing research that involved tagging migrating falcons, I lured the falcons to my net with tethered live starlings. The frightened starlings did not enjoy this; nor did I. So I put a stuffed starling, wings in flight position, behind the net. Of course, in nature, absolutely everyhing that looks like a bird and is covered with feathers and has a gleaming eye and moves up and down is a bird. Yet the stuffed bird never fooled one single falcon. They all sized it up, at a glance, as somehow not real and ignored it. That is impressive. Other animals are exceptionally good at identifying and reacting to predators, rivals and friends. They never act as if they believe that rivers or trees are inhabited by spirits who are watching. … other animals continually demonstrate their working knowledge that they live in a world brimming with other minds, as well as knowledge of those minds’ boundaries. Their understanding seems more acute, pragmatic, and, frankly, better than ours at distinguishing real from fake….Perhaps believing false things comes bundled with our peculair, oddly brilliant ability to envision what is not yet … No one has explained where creativity arises, but some human minds lurch along sparking new ideas like a train with a stuck wheel. It’s not rationality that’s uniquely human; it’s irrationality. It’s the crucial ability to envision what is not, and to pursue unreasonable ideas.”

p. 276 “Somehow the mirror test became the standard for determining whether an animal ‘has self-awareness’. That’s silly … A creature lacking self-concept would be unable to differentiate itself from anything … a mobile creature unable to differentiate itself from anything could hardly exist. I could not navigate the real world, escape, mate, or survive…. Maybe dogs know that the reflection in mirror is themselves and don’tmuch care. Dogs don’t mistake mirror images for other dogs; they don’t try to greet or attack them, as many birds do. Maybe dogs simply aren’t interested in examining themselves visually, because they’re so smell-oriented. … dogs can recognise images … recognise photographs of dogs, regardless of breed, as all being in the category ‘dogs’, distinct from other species.”

p.306 “Killer whales used to be thought of as one worldwide species. Not it appears that eight or so ‘types’, with differing food specialisations, are likely different species…. some of the largest undiscovered species on Earth have been hiding in plain sight.”

p. 311 “Killer whales maintain a social structure more complex than chimpanzees. And more peaceful. For all their heft and dental weaponry, when they find themselves in close proximity they either socialise or leave… Some native peoples do believe that they are people. Perhaps they intuit that killer whales’ stable, tiered, culturally self-defined groups parallel human society.”

p. 313 “At anywhere between one month and two years, bottlenose, Atlantic spotted, and other dolphins, develop their own distinctive, individual ‘signature whistles’. Signature whistles are a name they create for themselves. The sound is distinctive, and the dolphin doesn’t change it, ever. They use it to announce themselves. … Female bottlenose dolphins stay in their mothers’ groups for life. They develop signature whistles quite different from their mother’s, and thus are easy to tell apart as they travel together. Male youngsters – who will leave their birth group – develop signatures similar to moms’.

“Researchers have recently realised that various bat species, too, sing songs that include individualised calls. For instance, the European bat known as Nathusius’s pipistrelle has a song with several parts: it says, in human terms: ‘Hear ye, I am a Pipistrellus nathusii, specifically male 17. I am of this community, and we share a social identity; please land here.”

p. 338 “In 1979, Dr Diana Reiss starting working with a captive bottlenose dolphin named Circe. When Circe did the behavior thatReiss was looking for, Circe got verbal praise and some fish. When she didn’t she got a ‘time-out’, in which Reiss stepped back or turned away to indicate that Circe had not performed ‘correctly’… Circe didn’t like tail fins left on her mackerel, and by spitting out the pieces with tails, she essentially trained Reiss to cut them off. One day … Reiss absentmindedly gave Circe an untrimmed tail section. Circe waved her head from side to side they way we might indicate ‘No’, spat out the fish, swam to the other side of the pool, positioned herself upright, and just looked at Reiss for a short time. Then she came back. Circe the dolphin had given Reiss the human a time-out. … she had conceptualised the time-out as a way of communicating the idea ‘That’s not what I’ve asked for’ and used it to correct her human friend.”

p. 365 “whales leave us with questions so puzzling they are disturbing. Why would these beings declare unilateral peace with humans and not with smaller dolphins and seals, whom they attack and eat? Why would they single us out to give assistance? And why no grudge? Why, after the chronic harassment, capture, and disruption we’ve visited upno them, do they sho no learned and handed-down fears of humans such as wolves and ravens and even some dolphins seem to teach their young…. gigantic,mega-brained predators … who eat everything from sea otters to blue whales .. who wash seals off ice and curch porpoises and slurp swimming deer and moose – indeed seemingly any mammal they come across in the water, yet who have never so much as upended a single kayak and who appear -maybe – to bring lost dogs home.”

p. 373 “One foggy day, the biologist Maddalena Bearzi was taking notes on a familiar party of nine bottlenose dolphins who’d cleverly encircled a school of sardines near the Malibu pier. “Just after they began feeding,” she writes, “one of the dolphins in the group suddenly left the circle, swimming offshore at high speed. In less than an instant, the other dolphins left their prey to follow.” To abruptly stop feeding, that was pretty odd. Bearzi followed, too. “We were at least three miles offshore when the dolphins stopped suddenly, formed a large ring without exhibiting any specific behaviour.” That’s when Bearzi and her assistants spotted an inert human body with long, blond hair floating in the centre of the dolphin ring. “Her face was pale and her lips were blue as I pulled her fullly dressed and motionless body from the water.” Warmed with blankets and the researchers’ bodies, she began to respond. Later, in hospital, Bearzi learned that the 18-year-old had swum offshore to commit suicide. She survived. Such things are profound.”

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