The smartest animals on the planet
Beyond her beloved chimps, Jane Goodall finds amazing intelligence in the animal world. By Steve Dale
March 8 at 8 p.m. on Animal Planet, Jane Goodall revisits all her old friends on "Jane Goodall's Return to Gombe."
Which animals are the smartest? Too often, scientists focus on what animals can't do. But one of my heroes, primatologist Jane Goodall, has always focused on what they can do, so I turned to her for a definitive list.
She, of course, first opened the door to the world of chimpanzees back in 1960 in Gombe, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Before Goodall, researchers learned about animals by benignly observing subjects as if they were washing machines. She took a personal approach, even giving her chimpanzee subjects names like Freud, Fifi and Frodo. At the time, she was roundly rebuffed by her scientific colleagues, although the public connected with the chimps as individuals through her TV specials, articles and books. Today, her methods of observing animals in the wild are the norm.
To Goodall, these chimpanzees are friends. Chimps are, after all, our closest living relatives, sharing at least 98% of our genes. It was Goodall who learned chimps can get the same diseases we do, from the common cold to polio. She also discovered chimps use tools (sticks to "fish" for ants and termites to snack on) and even fashion crude weapons by hurling objects.
Goodall focused on chimps but has studied lots of other animals, too, including African wild dogs and hyenas. With ex-husband Hugo van Lawick, she found that Egyptian vultures use tools (they drop just the right-sized stones on ostrich eggs to crack them open).
Before Goodall's discovery, tool use was considered the gold standard to define intelligence, something -- it was thought -- only humans could do. Goodall concedes that people have brainpower far exceeding other animals'. After all, chimps don't build rockets to go to Mars, and dogs don't organize into unions to deal with unfair treatment by people. Still, Goodall says: "We're arrogant if we believe we're the only animals with thoughtful intelligence and an ability to solve problems. Intelligence also includes feelings, doesn't it? I mean empathy for others and sadness, and also a sense of humor."
So, exclusively for USA WEEKEND Magazine, here's Jane Goodall's list of the five smartest animals on the planet.
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1. Great apes Language once was thought to be limited to people. "All the great apes [in captivity] -- which include chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), gorillas and orangutans -- have learned American Sign Language," Goodall says. What's more, each kind of ape has taught ASL to others of their own kind.
"Great apes can use computers," she says. "There's a chimpanzee in Japan who's hooked on her computer like kids are hooked on video games. She's learned to solve complex problems. For example, she can replicate a set of numbers on the computer after the screen goes dead. To watch her is amazing. Her mind is clearly working the same way as ours, but actually much, much faster.
"Maybe chimps are a little too much like us; look at them, and we look into a mirror. The reflection isn't always flattering. They live in a society where power is rewarding for its own sake. They also have wars over territory."
2. Whales and Dolphins
It was once assumed that only humans could communicate with others they can't see, but it turns out dolphins and whales (and elephants, too) have their own versions of telephone and e-mail. Whales and dolphins use high frequencies to communicate over long distances. In fact, they seem to have a need to "talk." Goodall says: "We're only starting to understand what it is they're saying to one another. I believe when we ultimately learn what they're talking about, it will be quite revealing."
Unusual among animals, whales and dolphins use high frequencies to communicate with those they can't see.
They use very low frequencies to communicate over great distances. "Elephants establish long-term friendships and recognize these individuals years later," Goodall says. "We all know elephants remember." They also have "extraordinary empathy and compassion," she says, explaining how elephants sometimes even "bury" their dead. "When elephants come across a dead companion they recognize, they may outwardly grieve."
Elephants and great apes have painted original works of art, a creative expression of intelligence once thought restricted to humans.
"I know a parrot in New York called N'kisi (a Congo African Gray parrot) who knows 971 words. He isn't counted as having a new word until he's used it at least five times in a proper context. In other words, if he just repeats a word, that doesn't count. Before I met N'kisi, his owner, Aimee, was showing him pictures of me and chimps. When I walked into the room, he asked, 'Got a chimp?' Aimee broke a necklace, and he said, 'What a pity. You broke your new, nice necklace.' He uses grammar and initiates conversation (all skills once reserved for people). This bird even has a Web site [sheldrake.org/nkisi]. I don't think he's an exceptionally brilliant parrot; I do think we're only starting to understand how smart they are."
African Gray parrots are known for their large vocabularies.
5. Dogs & Cats
"They're as different as chimps and gorillas, and the age-old question about which are smarter I won't tackle," Goodall says. "Dogs have always been a part of my life and opened my eyes to animal intelligence. The stories of how devoted dogs are to people are legendary, but this is a choice they freely make. Dogs and cats are so perceptive -- much more than people are. They know what their people are thinking; they're always a step ahead of us."
Dogs first led Goodall to recognize animal intelligence. She finds dogs and cats often are more perceptive than people.
Steve Dale last wrote about the most popular dogs and cats.