Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Killer whales, dog-saving dolphins, wolves, and brilliant birds: Animals in the news

Animals continue to amaze us with their cognitive and emotional capacities

Nonhuman animals ("animals") do many unbelievable things. Of course, we shouldn't be surprised about recent discoveries if we give animals credit for who they really are, incredibly intelligent, emotional and moral beings. 

Lately, we've been learning a lot about our non-human kin. Killer whales apparently are rather deserving of their name. They do indeed kill other whales including young gray whale calfs and also block their migration path. The young grays who are killed serve as food for many other species and it's becoming clear that killer whales play a major role in the structure of marine ecosystems. 

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Dolphins have also made the news. An 11 year-old doberman pincher named Turbo was rescued by dolphins after she went missing for 15 hours. Turbo was discovered in a canal surrounded by dolphins. Her human companion said that she never would have been able to tread water for that long and survive. 

Wolves too are making news. While we know that wolves and their descendants, domestic dogs, show variations in behavior, some explainable by the close relationship that dogs have had with humans during the long domestication process, we're now learning that when we pay attention to the the details of these studies there are more subtle differences that can be explained by what wolves and dogs need to do in their daily lives. A recent study by Friedericke Range and her colleagues showed that while wolves and dogs can follow human cues, there are differences that can be explained by what wolves need to be as cooperative group-living carnivores (for a review of this study see).  Wolves, but not dogs, follow the gaze of a person who looks into the distance. They also can follow our gaze around a barrier. Dr. Range concludes, "The two types of gaze-following abilities seem to require different mental skills ... It may be that the talent for following another's gaze while looking in the distance is innate, almost a 'reflexive reaction ... But the ability to understand that your social pal is looking at something behind a barrier may develop only in species that are either highly cooperative or highly competitive—something that needs further testing." More biologically relevant studies like this need to be done on other species so that we can learn about how, for example, different cognitive skills evolved as a function of social living. 

Finally, while chimpanzees are smart, western scrub jays, small brains and all, outsmart our close kin. Jays not only can find hidden food but know how long it's been there and whether its rotted. Chimpanzees can remember where they hid good but don't seem to remember how long ago it was stored. We also know that New Caledonian crows make and use more sophisticated tools than chimpanzees. It's just fine to be a bird-brain. 

Stay tuned for more about animals in the news. 


 

 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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