Watched the Nova scienceNOW episode on animal intelligence on PBS last Wednesday and it was pretty good. The hour-long show featured dogs, dolphins, octopuses, and Alex, an African parrot. The highlight of the dog section was a border collie named Chaser. What an amazing dog! As mentioned previously in this blog, Chaser knows the names of more than 1,000 of her toys. In the special, she is told to fetch a specific toy from a bunch hidden behind a couch. Off she trots and time after time she brings back the correct one. Then comes the show stopper. A toy that she has never seen before (a plush figure of Darwin–clever!) is placed in the pile. Chaser is instructed to fetch Darwin, an unfamiliar name. Can she do it? It’s obvious the dog is befuddled. She noses around the pile of toys. All but one are familiar. Will she be be able to infer that the one toy whose name she doesn’t know must be Darwin? She’s called back and again told to find Darwin. This time, success! She grabs Darwin and bring the toy back to lavish praise.
While these feats of canine intelligence were being portrayed on the screen, Pablo snored by my side, unimpressed. Chaser was doing all this work and not getting treats? Pablo was having none of it!
My second favorite section was the one on octopuses. I’ve always found cephalopods to be fascinating creatures, the way they jet around, instantly camouflage themselves, and escape from predators in a blast of inky smoke. In this section viewers were introduced to Ruby, an octopus able to problem solve. In his home at the Biomes Marine Center in North Kingstown, Ruby was given a jar with a twist-on lid. Inside was a delectable shrimp. Not shown how to open the jar, the mollusk sometimes tightened it instead. Through trial and error, Ruby learned how to consistently open the lid and retrieve his snack. Sadly, Ruby died a year ago. His memory lives on.