Mark Twain once said, “It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.” If ever there were an animal who could say, “Amen!” to that, it would be chickens, whom people seem to conveniently perceive as “dumb” because it seems to help them feel better about abusing and eating them. But research continues to show that chickens are no dummies.
For example, a study at Australia’s Macquarie University revealed that chickens use calls and gestures to convey information about their external environment. Other chickens can in turn use that information to their own advantage. For example, if a male bird communicates that he has found food, other males will rush over to try to get some, which they will in turn present to a female as a way of currying favor. One of the study’s authors, Dr. K-lynn Smith says that chickens living in a social environment can become as cunning as humans, even downright Machiavellian.
“The ones that can outsmart the others and are slightly more clever, are more likely to get the food, get the girl,” Dr. Smith told the Australian Associated Press. “What we’re finding is that if you live in a complex society and you have to get along and out—compete your friends and neighbours, that is probably what is driving intelligence or cognition.”
Even fish can employ a bit of Machiavellian strategy. Scientists studying cleaner fish in French Polynesia have found that the fish will sometimes sneak a nibble of the skin of a “client fish” (from whom they remove and eat parasites) if they are at the edge of their home range and therefore unlikely to encounter the fish again. How cheeky!
But just as animals can use their intelligence to outwit each other (just as humans do), they can also cooperate with each other. A biologist who has spent years studying a family of giant Peruvian otters in Peru’s Manu National Park discovered that once the dominant female, named Cacao, grew old and feeble, the other members of her family took care of her, just as she had once taken care of them. On one occasion, Cacao, whose eyesight was failing, became separated from the rest of the group. She let out a wailing distress call, and another family member quickly came to her rescue and led her back to the others. Family members also routinely fed Cacao when she was unable to find enough food for herself. That’s more than can be said of some humans’ treatment of their grannies, isn’t it? I wonder if Mark Twain’s grandkids were as considerate …