We all know that chimpanzees and other animals are extremely intelligent and deeply emotional. And now a recent and extremely detailed study shows just how smart chimpanzees can be and that there are measurable individual differences in intelligence. Esther Herrmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and her colleague Josep Call have discovered that a female chimpanzee named Natasha was the smartest of the 106 chimpanzees they tested. The abstract for their original research article can be found here.
During their study the researchers "noticed a wide range of skills among the chimps and wondered whether they could measure this variation in ability—and whether there were studies that could predict the chimps’ overall performance in all areas, like an IQ test in humans. So they gave a battery of physical and social tests to 106 chimps at Ngamba Island and the Tchimpounga chimpanzee sanctuary in the Republic of the Congo, and to 23 captive chimpanzees and bonobos in Germany. In one experiment, chimps were asked to find food in a container after it had been shuffled around with empty containers. In another, they had to use a stick to get food placed on a high platform. The researchers analyzed the data to determine if the scores in some tests helped predict performance in others."
Individual differences and multiple intelligences are important to study
While the researchers didn't discover a general intelligence factor, g, that predicted intelligence on different sorts of skills they did discover large individual differences and that Natasha was the class valedictorian. Thus, they "advocate an approach based on testing multiple individuals (of multiple species) on multiple tasks that capture cognitive, motivational and temperament factors affecting performance. One of the advantages of this approach is that it may contribute to reconcile the general and domain-specific views on primate intelligence."
This study is a landmark attempt to open the doors to learning more about animal intelligence focusing on individual differences. It is also reminiscent of Howard Gardner's research on multiple intelligences in human apes and lays the foundation for work on animal genius and within species variations in intelligence. There is a great need for research on wild animals living in their natural habitats where they are not constrained by varying conditions of captivity.
Being a birdbrain is just fine
It is also important to include other animals in these sorts of analyses because we know there are significant individual differences among members of many different species and even among members of the same litter or brood. We also know that some birds can do things that chimpanzees can't do. For example, New Caledonian Crows (see also) make and use more sophisticated tools than do chimpanzees and it would be fascinating to learn more about multiple intelligences and the existence of valedictorians in these Einsteinian birds and other animals. Calling someone a "birdbrain" can be quite the compliment.
It's an exciting time for those people who are interested in the cognitive and emotional capacities of nonhuman animals. Stay tuned for more on the fascinating world of the amazing beings with whom we share our planet and how they differ from one another. For example, I'll be writing about "street smart" dogs later on because there clearly are individual dogs (and other animals) who do better "on the streets" than do others. The same goes for "urban smart" wild animals among whom some individuals do just fine, whereas others do not.
The teaser image can be found here.