Elephant in the room: are animals far cleverer than humans like to think?

From elephants that can count to dogs that can 'smell' malaria, scientists are starting to believe that animals are more gifted than we give them credit for

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Courtesy Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
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An elephant that can count or a dog that can foretell a disaster would once have been the topic of fiction or a circus attraction, but now they are the focus of scientific interest and their abilities appear to be genuine.

For millennia, the lowly status of animals ensured that any suggestion they had human-like abilities got short shrift. Yet attitudes towards animals have changed, and so has the willingness of scientists to take claims of gifted animals seriously.

Recently, an elephant named Authai has been making headlines because of her apparent ability to count.

Shown computer images of collections of objects, she was able to work out which showed the most objects around two-thirds of the time.

According to the Japanese researchers behind the study, the time Authai needed to reach her answer depended on the number of objects — suggesting she really was counting them — a trait once thought unique to humans.

Meanwhile, a species of crow continues to wow scientists with its ingenuity.

In 2002, a New Caledonian crow named Betty became world-famous because she appeared to bend garden wire into hooked tools to get food out of a trap. The same species of crows have since been observed making hooks to catch fish, and then keeping their inventions safe for re-use.

Now scientists have witnessed the crows going to the next level, creating tools with several parts.

A cadaver dog searches through properties as search and rescue crews look for human remains in Paradise, California on November 14, 2018.  Thousands of firefighters battled blazes in northern and southern California as body recovery teams searched the remains of houses and charred cars for victims of the deadliest wildfire in the history of the US state. At least 50 deaths have been reported statewide so far from the late-season wildfires, and with hundreds of people unaccounted for, the toll is likely to rise. / AFP / Josh Edelson

Faced with out of reach food, they picked up sticks supplied by researchers, only to find they were not long enough. So the crows looked around and noticed straws into which their sticks could fit, giving them extra reach.

Carefully sliding the sticks into the straws, the crows then returned to their task, and managed to flick the food out of the container.

Amazed, the researchers decided to make the task even harder, giving them ever shorter sticks to work with. One of the eight crows in the experiment went as far as creating a four-part tool consisting of two sticks and two straws.

The researchers, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, and the University of Oxford, admit they don’t know why the crows are so ingenious. They suspect they mentally visualise the tools being put together — though this has yet to be proven.

It suggests we humans still have much to learn about the abilities of other animals. And nowhere is this more apparent than in research into their ability to detect ill-health and even foretell disasters.

Malaria has just become the latest human disease that dogs are thought to be able to diagnose. Their noses, crammed with incredibly sensitive scent-detecting cells, can detect molecules in concentrations up to 100 million times weaker than humans can.

A team of researchers led by Professor Steven Lindsay of Durham University has trained dogs to detect the molecules in the socks of children infected by malaria. In tests, the dogs proved capable of correctly detecting the disease in around 70 per cent of cases, even in those with no outward signs of the disease.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, research into the method — which is quick and non-invasive — is seen as important to eradicating the disease.


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A recent review in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour found impressive evidence of the ability of trained dogs to detect lung, ovarian and prostate cancer, too, by sniffing body fluid samples.

But their superpowers don’t end there — animals are also thought to be able to detect disasters. Reports of animals fleeing the scene of an impending earthquake date back to Ancient Greece and anecdotes persist to this day.

Following the devastating Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004, reports emerged of elephants and other animals moving to higher ground before disaster struck. Such anecdotes may have some basis in genuine ability — in 1997, scientists at the University of California reported that elephants can detect the stomping of others over distances of 50 kilometres or more. Such sensitivity may allow them to detect so-called foreshocks, which often presage major earthquakes.

This year, a scientific review of past reports confirmed that such a link does appear to exist, but the evidence remains patchy.

Given the potential benefits, researchers are starting to follow up such anecdotes. Another team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology is currently tracking thousands of electronically tagged birds to see if they behave differently in the run-up to earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.

Despite such developments, many scientists remain sceptical about the superpowers of animals. But simply dismissing the idea out of hand is increasingly looking bird-brained.

Robert Matthews is Visiting Professor of Science at Aston University, Birmingham, UK