What Do We Learn From a Tool-Making Genius Bonobo and Copy-Cat Orcas?

How do studies of captive animals reflect what's happening in the wild?

Posted Aug 29, 2012

Earlier today I wrote about Natasha, the valedictorian of captive chimpanzees, who participated in a study of their cognitive abilities. The researchers used the word "genius" to refer to Natasha but it's pretty rare to see this word used to describe nonhuman animals (animals). Just this evening I came across the report of another study of an amazing great ape, in this case a bonobo named Kanzi, who was studied for many years by Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues and who is famous for his linguistic abilities including making up words. 

A essay in New Scientist titled "Bonobo genius makes stone tools like early humans did" caught my eye not only because I had the pleasure of meeting Kanzi a few years ago and because of his celebrity status but also because he is called a genius. Kanzi and another bonobo named Pan-Banisha made and used stone tools but Kanzi did it better. The abstract of the original research paper reads as follows: "Using direct percussion, language-competent bonobo-chimpanzees Kanzi and Pan-Banisha produced a significantly wider variety of flint tool types than hitherto reported, and used them task-specifically to break wooden logs or to dig underground for food retrieval. For log breaking, small flakes were rotated drill-like or used as scrapers, whereas thick cortical flakes were used as axes or wedges, leaving consistent wear patterns along the glued slits, the weakest areas of the log. For digging underground, a variety of modified stone tools, as well as unmodified flint nodules, were used as shovels. Such tool production and utilization competencies reported here in Pan indicate that present-day Pan exhibits Homo-like technological competencies."

Kanzi's behavior closely reflects that of early humans of the genus Homo. But, what does the behavior of Kanzi and other captive, pampered, and highly trained bonobos who had a lot of interactions with humans tell us about the behavior of their wild relatives? Researchers agree that it's unclear if bonobos would make these sorts of tools on their own but it's surely worth heading out into the field to see if they do. And of course whether they do or don't doesn't take anything away from Kanzi's so-called genius. The article about Kanzi also mentions Irene Pepperberg's research on Alex the parrot "who could purportedly (sic) count to six" and Betty, a smart New Caledonian crow, who crafted a hook out of wire and used it as a tool. 

Another study reported in the same issue of New Scientist also is concerned with the cognitive abilities of captive animals, in this case killer whales, also called orcas. This essay, titled "Cultured killer whales learn by copying", deals with imitation by three captive orcas who also had a lot of contact with humans living in an aquarium in Antibes, France. In a nutshell, these captive killer whales learned to imitate an action that another whale was performing by learning the meaning of the command "do that".

Wild killer whales might also display imitation. It's known that orcas show variations in behavior depending on where they live. Thus, killer whales living in Patagonia learn to climb onto beaches to catch sea lions, whereas their relatives living around the Antarctic Peninsula create waves to knock seals off of ice floes. Whales living around Norway herd herring into densely-packed balls and then slap the balls with their tails to stun the fish. These variations in predatory behavior might be culturally learned behaviors that are shared by discrete populations of killer whales and imitation may be important in their spread through a local group of animals.

What can we learn from studies of captive animals?

This is a very difficult question to answer but it's worth pondering because so much research on animal cognition is performed on captive animals. The three studies about which I wrote and many others raise questions about the importance and relevance of studies of captive animals. Surely we can learn quite a lot about behavior from studying captive animals but I want to stress that this alone does not justify keeping them in captivity nor breeding more animals to take their place as they age or are no longer useful for various sorts of studies. Indeed, one can question the use and re-use of the same individuals in various studies and a respected colleague told me that he believes that some individuals don't do what they really are able to do because they're simply bored. 

It's possible that captive studies exaggerate the cognitive skills of animals because of intensive training and contact with humans but it's also possible that studies of captive animals depress their behavior because individuals aren't able to express their full behavioral repertoire because they're kept in unnatural groups living in deprived social and/or non-social environments. There might also be within-species individual variations in behavior that need to taken into account. Kanzi and Natasha show this to be the case as do many studies of a wide variety of animals. 

I raise the question about the relevance of captive studies because in some research programs individuals are asked to perform unnatural acts in which humans partake and the animals don't do what they need to do to support the cIaim that they have certain cognitive skills. For example, this is true of studies asking if animals have a theory of mind (ToM), "the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own."

Researchers disagree and the results on captive animals are equicoval. Nonetheless, those working with Kanzi argue that he does indeed have a ToM. My own research on social play behavior in dogs, coyotes, and wolves and field work on coyotes have also led me to conclude that they have a ToM because of their ability to negotiate and coordinate their behavior in highly variable circumstances that would be very difficult or impossible to do without their being able to attribute mental states to themselves and to others. Much more research has to be done and slowly but surely researchers are asking these questions for wild animals. 

It's fair to ask what Kanzi, Alex, Betty, and other animals tell us about the behavior of their wild relatives and right now we need to be very cautious about generalizations until the necessary research is conducted. Nonetheless, it's very clear that individuals representing diverse species are capable of learning rather sophisitcated cognitive skills -- they're really smart -- and of course what we know about their intelligence and emotional lives means we must treat them with care and make sure that they are not abused in the name of research as we try to learn more about them.

Along these lines, the long overdue Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness shows that we need to expand our circle of concern, compassion, and empathy for the nonhuman beings with whom we interact in myriad ways. We must use what we know to act on their behalf. 

The teaser image by Elizabeth Rubert-Pugh (Great Ape Trust of Iowa/Bonobo Hope Sanctuary} can be found here

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