[diagram of a round peg and a square hole]
Here’s a peg and a hole. Can you fit them together?
The answer should be obvious. And yet, you didn’t need to fit them together to figure it out. You simply created an imaginary peg and hole of the same dimensions in your mind, and tried the experiment there. It’s a remarkable talent, perhaps even… miraculous?
We put our spatial reasoning to best use when creating tools. In order to solve a problem in the physical world, we must be able to mentally break it down into sub-problems, picture an object or technique that solves each of them in turn, and assemble a tool or tools in the real world that behave like our imagined ones.
So if I find another species that uses tools, I’ve also found one capable of spatial reasoning.
That should be tricky. Humans are practically defined by tools. Even the lowliest hunt/er-gatherer never leaves home without a spear or axe. We’ve built entire civilizations around them, from the daggers and shields of the Romans, to the automobiles of the USA. No other animal is as skilled a toolmaker.
Other species still create and use tools, though. I’ve already talked about Betty’s amazing abilities with tools, so I should elaborate on their use in wild crows. Dr Lucas Bluff and others from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University have collected nearly 2,000 hours of video footage in a detailed study of those birds. They noted that wild crows have stopped using their beaks to dig out insect larvae, and instead gather most of their food using tools. The birds are smart enough to match their tools to their job, using long twigs in deep holes and short twigs in shallow holes. They’re also picky in what they’ll use as a tool, presumably because they’ve learned some materials and sizes work better than others.
And as mentioned before, adult crows are much better at using tools than juveniles, a sign that tool use is a learned skill, not an evolved instinct.
Tool use is not limited to land animals, however, or even organisms with a backbone. The Veined Octopus has been filmed gathering coconut shells from the sea floor. After digging out two of them, they’ll combine them into an invincible spherical shelter, perfect for sleeping in or lounging around. Once finished, the satisfied octopus will discard the halves. By itself, that would be notable; the only other animal that has been observed fashioning their own temporary shelter is a human.
But then the Veined Octopus did something that had the researchers doubled over in fits of laughter. As Julian Finn, of Museum Victoria, and colleagues looked on, one octopus positioned itself over top a coconut half, gathered it up in its tentacles, and walked across the ocean floor! Sort of, anyway; the coconuts are roughly twice as big as the poor cephalopod, so its “walk” is more of a drunken stumble. Like any good comedic video it’s been posted to the internet, so you too can enjoy science history by rolling on the floor, laughing.
I can’t leave this topic without mentioning our closest cousin, the chimp. After all, they were the first animal noted to use tools in the wild, by Jane Goodall in 1960, and have remained the best-documented.
Chimpanzees don’t have a single tool, so much as an entire tool kit. Over fifty years of close study, researchers have discovered that chimps have nine different ways of putting tools to use. They’ll use branches to check out-of-reach places, clean themselves with wet bundles of leaves and moss, and even sharpen sticks into spears for hunting.
[All children] shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.
( Principle 7, “Declaration of the Rights of the Child.” UN General Assembly Resolution 1386, adopted December 10th, 1959 )
Granting a Universal Human Right to the protection of consciousness, free expression of thought, and even medical assistance makes quite a lot of sense. But why should the ability to play get such fundamental protection?
Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.
(“The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” by Kenneth R. Ginsburg. Pediatrics, Vol. 119 No. 1 January 1, 2007. )
Come to think of it, human beings also have a ridiculous amount of free time compared to other species. They blindly focus on sex and defence, while we sharpen our social and mental skills by engaging in play. I’m not sure what sort of skills we’re enhancing when slowly float down a river with a cooler of beer in the boat, but maybe that’s the point; we’re also capable of having mindless fun, in addition to the more beneficial types of play. Is this a divine gift, perhaps?
At the Konrad Lorenz Research Centre, researchers have spotted some bizarre behaviour in wild crows. One of them would fly to the top of a steep, snowy hill, tuck in its wings, and flop over. After it slid down the slope on its back, it would shake itself off then fly back to the top for another go. Another time, they spotted birds grabbing the tail of a wild boar, then letting the larger creature drag them through the snow upside-down.
Crows do not have to know how to slide in order to survive. On the contrary, these behaviours are dangerous to a delicate winged creature, and yet the birds didn’t look distressed or hassled into doing them. After considering all the alternatives, the researchers conceded the best explanation for their behaviour was play. The crows were just stunting for a good time.
Dolphins get their kicks by swimming in a tight circle, then blowing bubbles into the column of rotating water. The resulting bubble ring is usually admired as it floats to the surface, though sometimes the dolphin will give it a bite and delight in the scattered bubbles that rise more quickly. For bigger thrills, they’ll body-surf along waves that crash into shore, or in the big waves of a giant ship.
Lauren Highfill and Stan Kuczaj have been studying porpoise play. In five years, they spotted 317 different games. One young calf had an elaborate game that involved blowing bubbles while upside-down, then chasing them to the surface:
She then began to release bubbles while swimming closer and closer to the surface, eventually being so close that she could not catch a single bubble. During all of this, the number of bubbles released was varied, the end result being that the dolphin learned to produce different numbers of bubbles from different depths, the apparent goal being to catch the last bubble right before it reached the surface of the water.
She also modified her swimming style while releasing bubbles, one variation involving a fast spin-swim. This made it more difficult for her to catch all of the bubbles she released, but she persisted in this behavior until she was able to almost all of the bubbles she released. Curiously, the dolphin never released three or fewer bubbles, a number which she was able to catch and bite following the spin-swim release.
(Behavioral and Brain Sciences, October 2005)
Interestingly, most of these games were developed by young dolphins, something Highfill and Kuczaj suspect may be their contributions to a dolphin “culture.”
Ah, yes, culture. The collection of little things that we share from one person to another that have little or nothing to do with reproduction. Our great works of art fall into this category, as does our choice of music. We dress like other people, and try to inspire others to take on our fashions; we paint ourselves up, to look good for potential mates but also to fit into a social niche. We add little flourishes to our buildings that follow someone else’s tradition, and we even adjust our slang to fit in. We have so much intelligence that we can afford to waste it on these trivial touches.
Other species lead much duller lives, preferring to bask in the sun instead of accessorize their coats. What could be a better indicator of intelligence?
As it turns out, nearly everything. The banded mongoose has never been called a brainy animal, and yet Corsin Müller has shown they have culture. He presented wild populations with a plastic egg containing fish and rice for half a month, and noted how they treated the egg; did they hold it in their mouth with their paws and crack it open with their teeth, did they smash it against a tree or rock to open it, or did they pass it by? Mongooses are very dogmatic, so once their initial decision was made they stuck with it. They also have a unique way of raising their pups; the young ones don’t spend much time with their parents, but instead grow up with another adult and learn by watching them go about their business. Müller ensured there were some apprentices nearby when he dropped the plastic treats in front of these tutors, but also made sure that only the adults got to handle the egg.
Müller then safely stashed the eggs for two to ten months. After that, he dropped a few by the former apprentices, now mature adults in their own right. Would they follow in the paw prints of their mentor, and adopt the behaviour they had been shown, or invent their own method? As you’ve guessed, they nearly always did what their tutor originally did.
What makes this study stand out is that it was an experiment on a wild population. Most studies of primates, and almost all the ones done on whales, are done to a captive audience. There’s a chance that those animals have picked up on human behaviours and adopted them as their own, but would never consider fluff like culture in the wild.
So it’s amusing that the humble mongoose is our best example of culture in a wild animal.
Whales may not be far behind. We know that wild killer whales can be divided into three populations: one group hangs out in one place and eats nothing but fish, another that wanders the coastline looking for plump seals and otters, and a third that dives deep and does something-or-other. Genetic analysis shows that all three could interbreed, yet they don’t. It strongly suggests a deep cultural divide between wild populations, but no-one has proven it.
We’ve taken captive chimps and taught two different ways to retrieve food from a puzzle to two of them from two different groups. When returned to the cage they immediately enlightened other members of their group how to solve the puzzle. Two months on, each group was using the method they had been taught, even though both shared the same cage and could watch the other group use the other method to do the same task. It experimentally proved that chimps could have culture, but said nothing about their wild behaviour.
 Hermit Crabs don’t count. While they’ll freely use shells and even bottles to create a shelter, those are permanent and stay firmly attached to the crab until they are either outgrown or their squatter dies.
 This third group was only found recently, so little is known about them. It’s notoriously difficult to study deep-diving creatures; no human has seen a deep-sea squid, and no scientist who’s gone looking has found one, yet their dead bodies will occasionally wash up on a beach. Presumably, some of them prefer a burial at land…