Animal intelligence

The Guardian


Thanks to BBC TV’s Test The Nation quiz, I now know that I score “above average”: I don’t know which year T Rex were getting it on, or what cullen skink tastes like. I do, however, know that gurning goes on in Cumbria (in England), Llanddewi Brefi is a real place and I can locate the Curry Mile. My pets were no help, but then animals just aren’t as intelligent as us, are they? Well, they’re not much good at general knowledge, but what is intelligence anyway?

Now people are being urged to show us how clever they are as part of Test Your Pet, the BBC’s latest foray into quiz mania. The programme will put Crufts (UK dog show) winners and flyball champions to the test. Never fear, Rolf Harris is also on hand. Let me pre-empt the screech of “dumbing down”. Test Your Pet is not merely a cutesy, fluffy ratings-grabber; if all goes to plan, it will be mass participation science.

The tests examine areas such as communication skills, sensory sensitivity and problem solving ability. Digital viewers will also be able to watch Pet TV, a short loop of images and sounds put together to investigate what kinds of stimuli animals respond to. Dr Tim Guilford, reader in animal behaviour at the Department of Zoology in England’s Oxford University, was involved in devising the tests. “We are trying to get people to think about what it means for an animal to be intelligent and which skills and abilities enable animals to deal with novel situations.” The six main tests are broad enough for most pets, from cats and dogs to mice, hamsters, horses and budgies, but the aim is not simply to identify the most quick-witted species. In general, humans attribute intelligence to animals whose aptitudes most closely resemble our own, chimps being the prime example, or to animals that respond well to us and can be trained to be useful, such as dogs and horses. Pet owners are often confident that their preferred species is the sharpest knife in the drawer. “Dogs are obviously more intelligent because they can herd sheep and locate stashes of cocaine,” says one. “No, no,” retorts another, “cats are brighter because they refuse to work for us.” Then someone always pipes up, “It’s been proven pigs are much cleverer than dogs — or is it parrots?”

Guilford hopes that Test Your Pet “will expose the simplicity of the myth that some species are more intelligent than others”. All animals have highly tuned skills appropriate to their needs: pub quiz facts aren’t much use to bumble bees, for example, but they know their flowers. There is even a special test for fish, which will explode the five-second-memory slur for so long suffered by goldfish.

Even the most devoted pet owner sometimes thinks their pet is being a bit dim-witted, but trying out these tests may illuminate the world as seen from our pets’ perspective. When the dog barks for no apparent reason, for instance, in all likelihood, the dog is responding to something you simply can’t hear. It’s not only pet owners who will gain insight from these tests. “The exciting thing from a scientist’s point of view is that it could lead to a huge database of information about the distribution of abilities among animals across a range of species,” says Guilford. Scientists tend to overlook domestic pets in preference for animals in the wild. Lions, tigers and bears are all very wonderful, but if we’re really clever we should also draw on the readily accessible wealth of knowledge on our laps.