Can animals understand sign language

Wildlife: Can Animals Think?

Is It Really True That Foxes Are Smart? And cows stupid? No researcher has been able to prove this so far. In many other animals, scientists have conducted experiments to find out what is going on in their heads - and they have come across considerable achievements in the process

A horse that can count? Impossible! Scholars want to see this before they believe it. And so in September 1904 professors, veterinarians and even a circus director visit the court of the teacher Wilhelm von Osten. This is where "Kluge Hans" is at home, this stallion that the whole country is already talking about. The visitors are suspicious. But the horse star remains calm. When asked "How much is three times nine?" he immediately starts stamping his front hoof: exactly 27 times. Then he easily calculates a few square roots - a task that human children from 7th grade onwards grapple with. The researchers are impressed.

The "Kluge Hans" passes his test even when a complete stranger asks him the questions. The dizziness only flies up later: Hans simply stomps on every task. When the correct result is achieved, the questioner unconsciously relaxes his muscles. Just a millimeter jerk - but the stallion almost always recognizes it and immediately stops pounding. If his "teacher" does not know the solution himself, the horse has no idea either.

Nevertheless, "Kluge Hans" was a miracle horse. He couldn't count to three - but he could outsmart professors. They became cautious after the embarrassment: for decades they laughed at anyone who claimed that a seal or a rat could think. If an animal behaved "wisely", the researchers suspected that it was being trained. Or some kind of natural computer program, an innate reaction that has nothing to do with thinking, free will, or weighing up advantages and disadvantages. The scholars trusted people alone to achieve such achievements - according to the motto: only those who can speak have thoughts buzzing through their heads.

Today, many researchers realize that they were very wrong. Animals cannot take square roots. But they can think and communicate - just differently from us humans.

Communication among animals: can animals speak?

For example, researchers have found a language of their own in the vervet monkey, a species of monkey in East Africa. Whenever a member of the monkey gang warns his buddies about an enemy, it always tells them who is lying in wait for them: the monkeys know special warning calls for big cats, snakes, eagles, humans and baboons. When the cat alarms, everyone flees to the thin branches of the trees; when the eagle is warned, they storm into the nearest bushes. And when a mamba snakes up, the monkeys stand on their back legs and search the ground.

A gray parrot named Alex has shown even more brains: He knows almost 100 words in English - and can not just parrot them, but use them correctly! For example like this: A trainer shows Alex a blue and a green wooden triangle. "What's the same, Alex?" She asks. "Shape," the parrot crows. What is different "Colour." And what is the name of the material? "Wood." No wooden head, this bird! Even if he has to study two months for each new word.

Other animals, such as sea lions, dolphins or chimpanzees, cannot pronounce human words. But researchers have taught them sign language - or taught them to form sentences from more than 100 symbols. The cleverest monkeys even manage to put several characters together to create new terms if they are at a loss for words. When a chimpanzee saw an effervescent tablet hissing in a glass, she pointed to the signs for "hearing" and "drink". And the female gorilla Koko named her striped plush zebra "White Tiger". Pretty eloquent! And who knows what the birds are chirping for each other in the forest? No one has yet figured out their language.

Animals perform at their best when it comes to orientation

Animals also perform at high levels when they have to orientate themselves. Migratory birds determine their course with the starry sky. Salmon recognize their home rivers by their smell. What they are thinking is uncertain. And what is going on in the pine jay's brain when this bird hauls up to 30,000 seeds into 6,000 hiding spots in the autumn? What if he finds almost all of them again in winter? One thing is clear: For example, the bird remembers when a place is exactly between two trees - so it has to know what a "middle" is. The researchers now want to find out whether the animal can also differentiate between right and left.

The honey bees can do it: When they discover new nectar, they give their colleagues precise directions to the place where it was found - they pack the information in a dance! A researcher has proven that the insects really have to have some kind of map in their heads: he led bees to a boat on a lake. The coveted flower juice was hidden there. But when the "explorers" buzzed back to their hive and told them about the find, no one followed their tip: the bees thought the hint was a mistake - because according to their inner map, the supposed land of milk and honey was in the middle of the lake! That seemed strange to them.

Animals and their tools

Animals that make tools demonstrate a different kind of intellectual performance. The crows on the South Sea island of New Caledonia are masters of this: they nibble strips shaped like knives from the stiff leaves of the pandanus tree - perfect for poking around for insects under the bark of the tree. Even better: in order to pull a bucket of food out of a hole, a crow bent a wire hook in the laboratory and used it to hoist the meal within reach. Children can only achieve this kind of thinking at the age of three!

Pregnant elephant cows have discovered another type of "tool": if the baby in their tummy does not want to come out, they run to a very specific tree, eat all the leaves - and have their young a little later. Nobody knows yet how they know obstetrics medicine.

But there are also apparently easy tasks that almost all animals fail at: for example the mirror test. A point of color is painted on an animal's face while it is sleeping. But dogs, cats and most of the monkeys don't understand afterwards that the point they see in the mirror is on their own body. This "self-knowledge" can only be achieved by chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, dolphins - and people older than two years.

Many animals also do poorly in math. After all, monkeys have proven that they can add one and one together. The pigeons come a little further: they can learn to peck a button exactly 45 times with their beak to get a piece of food. If a second button only releases a delicacy after pressing it 50 times, you will remember this too - and you can operate both switches with precisely counted movements. Incredible: a pigeon's brain isn't even as big as a walnut. And the birds don't have fingers to count.

Some other bird species, on the other hand, could use some math tutoring: When the cuckoo lays an egg in their nest, they don't even notice the cheek. Maybe they should turn on their sparrow brains - and count their offspring!

Cat or dog: who is smarter?

Pet fans keep getting at each other when it comes to this question. Cat lovers brag about the fact that their darling has a "head of his own" and always knows exactly what he wants. And dog lovers show off the great tricks they have taught their collies, dachshunds or boxers. Who is right?

The biologist Immanuel Birmelin tried to answer this question with experiments. And his result satisfies everyone: cats and dogs are both smart - but they have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to thinking. Cats, for example, have a better sense of orientation, the researcher believes: "We put cats in front of a six-meter-long wire fence and put a food bowl on the other side. The animals quickly realized that they had to go around the fence to get on the delicacies to come. "Dogs are more difficult to catch on when trying to do the same thing, often stopping directly opposite the bowl and then trying unsuccessfully to get through the fence.

The stubborn cats are difficult to train for more complicated experiments - but the biologist Birmelin has discovered one thing: cats can count up to four. At least! For "one" and "two" they first had to cram for a long time, but then they passed the first test: If the trainer hit a glass with a spoon, they ran to a bowl with a dot on it and dialed when knocking twice the one with the two dots painted on it. Admittedly, that was not yet an art, because the cats were rewarded with treats for making the right decision. But then they showed the real math achievement: the purring students understood the numbers "three" and "four" immediately and by themselves! And the researchers didn't cheat: there was exactly the same amount in all food bowls ...

Whether dogs can count has not yet been fully researched. But they have their mouths ahead in another area: They understand us humans better. When a person points at something with his finger, the dogs quickly understand that their master does not want to show them his beautiful index finger, but instead points to something else, more distant. So you understand that people "think something" when they move their hands. Even if a person only moves their eyes in one direction, trained dogs understand what that means: namely, that the person is aiming his gaze in a certain direction. Cats are at a loss during such experiments - if you want to show them the way with your hand, they will at most sniff the outstretched index finger. Give it a try!

But cat fans shouldn't be sad, because one thing is certain: dogs can be trained well, cats, on the other hand, train themselves - namely "their humans". When it's comfortable on the sofa, stand in front of the patio door, meowing; and when the person hurries up and opens the door in annoyance, the cat often changes his mind, abandons the perplexed person without further ado - and perhaps brags to her friends about the great tricks she has taught her clever owner.

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