Whales, Elephants, and Dolphins

Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 3

McCoy on Language

Communication: Many Forms

Years ago, gibbons were thought to be one of the least intelligent apes. They repeatedly failed intelligence tests that other apes passed with ease, and they were quickly written off as stupid.

Then a group of researchers proposed something – seemingly obvious in retrospect – that was revolutionary at the time: Because gibbon hands weren't physically able to pick up objects from flat surfaces in the way other apes were capable, the researchers shouldn't be giving gibbons the same intelligence test as other apes.

When the researchers changed the test to better suit gibbon hand shape, the gibbon test scores skyrocketed, quickly landing alongside the other apes.

There's an important lesson to learn here. Summed up, we might say that judging others solely by our own standards might not be the best strategy ever.

You might be wondering why I’m starting a post about whales, elephants, and dolphins by talking about gibbons. It's for this exact lesson: our past attempts to crack the code of their conversations might have been foiled for similar reasons as the gibbon example.

Let’s take a look at elephants first. They are tool users, have fantastic memories, are socially gregarious, are self-aware (can identify themselves in a mirror), and are generally agreed to be one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom. But what about language?

One of our biggest clues comes from a few interesting stories about elephants traveling long distances to hold wakes. Elephants are notorious for mourning their dead. We know that they’ve also done this for humans, even going so far as to give them burials. When celebrated elephant activist Lawrence Anthony died, two herds of wild elephants that Anthony had rehabilitated traveled from hours and hours away to hold a two-day wake outside of his house. How'd they know?

Well, it turns out that elephants are capable of generating incredibly loud noises that travel for miles and miles. Amazingly, those “loud” noises are too low for humans to hear. They can talk with other elephants at great distances and, apparently, are capable of conveying fairly complex information.

It goes deeper than that. Elephants appear to have massive numbers of learned behaviors—not just tool-using skills but also, apparently, cultural ones. Researchers have discovered surprisingly different social structures between herds, even among the same species. It would seem utterly astonishing if this was all accomplished without language of some sort.

Similar traits apply to dolphins and whales. Both are capable of making noises well above and below our hearing ranges. Both are also incredibly intelligent and social.

If we want to learn whether elephants, dolphins, whales, or other species truly have language—or, even more dauntingly, learn to understand or even speak it—we'll need to learn to start understanding how the lifestyles and physiologies of these animals would alter their needs and abilities in terms of communication.

We can't merely judge them by human standards.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Yard Ramp Rental vs. Purchase

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy describes the choices to make when it comes to renting or purchasing one of his quality forklift ramps. Seems you won't go wrong either way.

Check out his new blog HERE.

Humans Speaking Animal

Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 2: Groundhog Day

I just scampered in from Jackson Hole, and man are my dogs tired.

Last time around, we looked at animals speaking human language. What about humans trying to speak animal language?

Well, somewhat embarrassingly—and other than some scientifically and ethically suspect experiments with dolphins back in the day—we really hadn't tried too hard until fairly recently. We're looking into it with a vengeance now, and we're coming up with some astonishing results.

First of all, we've got parrots (like Alex) in the wild. We've confirmed they have words for specific types of predators, foods, etc. The most fascinating thing we've found, though, is that they give each other names. Each parrot has a distinct name that remains throughout its entire life, given to it by its mother. That's…pretty astonishing.

Next, we have prairie dogs. (Not groundhogs, I know; I couldn't resist the title.) Prairie dogs live in huge underground communities, and scientist Con Slobodchikoff has been studying their vocalizations fairly intensely over the years.

He's confirmed they have a variety of different danger calls. Essentially, they have words for hawk, human, coyote, and even domesticated dogs. This is quite useful, since each threat demands different responses.

Here's where it gets crazy, though: Slobodchikoff tried sending people, dressed differently, through the prairie dog villages and eventually realized that prairie dogs had the words that actually described individual humans. He found that the prairie dogs could differentiate the color of the humans' shirts, as well as differentiate between different shapes on their shirts.

The prairie dogs could identify the difference between triangles and circles, but not circles and squares. The ability to use adjectives like this is far from one expected in a species of rodents.

There are quite a few more obviously intelligent animals in the world than prairie dogs. They’ve got to have even more language, right? (So long as they’re social and not solitary, at least.)


Next time: Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 3: Whales, Elephants, and Dolphins

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Appreciating the Yard Ramp

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy continues to honor the beauty of a yard ramp with a terrific perspective on its logistical and economic value.

Check out his new blog HERE.

Animal Intelligence and Language

Part 1: Birds of a Feather

Alex, Talking About Things

Ever heard of Alex the grey parrot? Alex could supposedly use language, though his owner, animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, quite cautiously claimed he could use a “two-way communications code.”

That, you know, involved Alex understanding more than a hundred words.

He could identify more than fifty different objects (and could even tell you what color it was or what material it was made of), could count to six, and even knew how to apologize and when it was appropriate.

Alex could invent names for things (he called apples “banerrys,” presumably a combination of banana and cherry, which he was more familiar with).

Every night, as Pepperberg left the lab Alex lived in, he'd tell her, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

They were the last words he ever spoke to her. He died in his sleep at age 31.

So why, exactly, did Pepperberg refuse to say Alex used language?

Well, it's because of linguists. Or, more precisely: the animal intelligence debate, and the role linguists and animal cognitive scientists play. The debate is a complicated, in-depth, challenging thing, and trying to summarize doesn't do it justice. But I’ll give it a shot.

Essentially: Animal cognitive scientists believe that animals might be capable of using language, while linguists don't. (There are, of course, dissidents on both sides, but those are roughly the camps.)

Alex the grey parrot is hardly alone as evidence for animals being able to speak language. Gorillas and other great apes, for example, have been taught to speak sign language. Dogs and many other domesticated animals can learn extensive commands in human languages, though how much is them actually understanding and how much is them just learning behavioral triggers is a point of massive contention.

All that being said, Alex is the only known animal to have been able to ask questions, so that somewhat leans things back toward the linguist side of the argument, outside of Alex himself.

Here's the tricky bit, though: all of the above are animals trying to speak human languages, not humans trying to understand animal languages.


Next time: Animal Intelligence and Language, Part 2: Groundhog Day

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Back to Yard Ramp Basics

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy waxes in a fine way about the beautiful simplicity of the yard ramp. Honored that he quotes me in the piece.

Check out his new blog HERE.

Exciting Tedium

What’s in a Name

Dull & Boring?

Oh, Calm Down

There’s a town named Boring, Oregon. Though it’s not an especially exciting place, it's not really that boring either. By most accounts, Boring is a lovely little town of 7,000 people built on an extinct lava field. Things maybe got pretty exciting when the nearby and majestic volcano Mount Hood last erupted, about 200 years ago (but that only caused some mudflows and lava domes and wasn’t a major eruption and was, therefore, probably not very exciting).

I like that they didn’t name the place Less Exciting. “Go there! Take advantage of myriad hiking trails and other outdoor activities. Have a not boring time!”

There’s another place named Dull, Scotland. This is a tiny village of less than a hundred people—a pretty little hamlet, with but a single street. Oh, and this breaking news item: it has old grave stones dating back as far as the 7th century.

There's a farming community named Bland, Australia. With a population of some 6,000 residents, it covers a much larger area than the other two. Bland used to be a gold mining region, though these days it's largely a farming community. Tony Lord is the mayor of Bland.

A few years ago, a Scottish cyclist from Dull—on vacation in the States—passed through Boring. She had a fairly terrific eureka moment, and in 2012 the two towns became sister cities.

Not to miss out on all the excitement, the following year Bland joined the sister cityhood as well. Together, they’re known—self-mockingly and otherwise—as the Trinity of Tedium.

Rules and regulations dictate that the trio are not officially sister cities, due to the size differences between the three, but they definitely live up to the spirit of the Sister City.

Sister Cities: dreamed up after the Second World War, they were intended to help repair the international bonds of friendship torn by the war. The notion quickly spread in popularity, and sister cities (also called Twin Towns) are linked around the world. Residents exchange gifts, organize joint celebrations, and foster exchange students with one another.

Not on the register of Sister Cities: Inacessible Island. A dormant volcano with an area of 5.4 miles, it sits in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Oh, and its human population is pretty much zero. Because, you know, it’s hard to reach.



So, Yard Ramp GuyHere you go:

“Habit is the cement of society, the comfort of life, and, alas! The root of error.”

— Fulke Geville

Nursery Rhymes Revisited

It’s Never Too Late to Have a Scary Childhood

Have a Great Fall!

Most people don't think about the origins of our nursery rhymes, but it turns out that a lot of them have pretty interesting—or even gruesome—histories.

Mary had a Little Lamb” was based on a true story: In 1816, Mary Sawyer of Sterling, Massachusetts, had her pet lamb follow her to school. Mary had raised the lamb from infancy, when its mother rejected it. It followed her all over and would come when called. Her brother suggested they bring it to school, and so they did. When the teacher caught them, Mary didn't get in trouble. The teacher just laughed and had them take it home at lunch. A poet witnessed the event and, well, the rest is history.

We commonly think that “Ring around the Rosie” is about the Black Death. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” suddenly seems a lot darker in that light. Most scholars, however, disagree, though the Black Death explanation is unlikely to vanish any time soon, given how well it captures the imagination.

Jack and Jill” is thought to come from King Charles I of England's attempt to reform a tax on liquid goods. Parliament rejected the measure, leading King Charles to lower the volume of a pint, leading to smaller half- and quarter-pints, known respectively as “jacks” and “gills.”

London Bridge is Falling Down” could refer to a Viking attack in 1014 AD that destroyed the bridge, a child sacrifice (probably not, though it's certainly sensational), or just that bridge’s continual state of poor repair through most of history.

There are claims scrambled about that “Humpty Dumpty” refers to a cannon that fell off a city wall, but it's probably just an invented riddle.

We tend to think that “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” refers either to Mary, Queen of Scots or to Queen Mary I of England. Mary I is the more gruesome version. She’s also known as Bloody Mary for her execution of hundreds of Protestants, and the metaphors that we can read into it are pretty grim.

Pop! Goes the Weasel” is probably just nonsense, though not for the weasel.



Yard Ramp Guy, sir—Impressive stuff here:

“I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met.”

— Stephen Wright