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Baboons aren't the only clever animals

April 13, 2012|By Eryn Brown
  • Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a psychology professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., studied Alex the African gray parrot for 30 years.
Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a psychology professor at Brandeis University in… (Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles…)

French researchers reported this week that they had trained six baboons to read — or at least to scan a string of four letters and determine when they form a word and when they don’t.  The experiment, which was reported Thursday in the journal Science, cements baboons’ place among an ever-growing menagerie of clever animals.

In December, the Los Angeles Times reported about pigeons who could count — birds who could see pictures of groups of items and peck at them in ascending order.  Some primates share this mathematical ability.

Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a psychology professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., studied an African gray parrot named Alex over the course of 30 years. Alex had more than 100 verbal labels for objects, actions and colors and could count up to six objects. He also had a rudimentary understanding of the concept of zero, and “acted as a coach and cheerleader” to other birds in Pepperberg’s lab. 

“His favorite toys were cardboard boxes, key chains and corks,” according to the website of the Alex Foundation, a nonprofit Pepperberg launched to support research of intelligence in parrots.

A February 2011 episode of PBS’s "NOVA scienceNOW" introduced viewers to sea lions who could associate specific sounds with letters of the alphabet and use logic to earn a fish, and a border collie who had memorized the names of nearly 1,000 toys in her home.

Chimps have learned sign language. Elephants grieve, play and use tools. The octopus can navigate mazes. Birds called western scrub jays hide nuts from one another.

Knowing how birds, sea creatures and other beasts think offers clues to how our own intelligence evolved, scientists say. Skills that seem uniquely human — such as those baboons’ ability to distinguish words from non-words — may have their roots in ancient abilities that developed far earlier in the evolutionary past.   

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