Sunday 5 June 2016

The 'Houdini' honey badger and other surprisingly clever animals

June 2, 2016 by Louise Gentle, The Conversation

"What's that, Lassie? Timmy has fallen down the well?" Lassie was the clever dog that always used to save the day, but stories of clever pets such as skateboarding dogs are well known. It is also widely acknowledged that animals such as monkeys, apes, whales and dolphins are extremely intelligent, but how do we actually define "clever"?

Clever can mean anything from a camouflaged chameleon to an ape using sign language or even employing "sacred rituals", but clever usually refers to a behaviour rather than a physical appearance.

So, how do clever behaviours arise? Conditioning is a learning process whereby an organism undertakes a behaviour in response to a stimulus.Classical conditioning, such as that expressed by Pavlov's dogs, is where a neutral stimulus (in this case a bell) is presented with a potent stimulus (food) to stimulate a reflex reaction (salivation). Over time, the neutral stimulus alone stimulates the reaction, thus Pavlov's dogs eventually salivated whenever they heard the bell ring, whether food followed or not. Indeed, my friend inadvertently conditioned her dog to salivate when he heard the closing Neighbours theme tune – great when she watched it at dinner time, but not so good when she tuned into a rogue episode in the middle of the day.

Trial and error
Operant conditioning, meanwhile, is where a behaviour is modified by its consequences, and animals learn through trial and error. Imagine some hungry chimpanzees trying to poke termites out of their mound. If one chimp happens to be holding a twig while poking around, it might be small enough to fit into the mound and get covered in termites. If the chimp then pulls the twig out of the mound and eats the termites it has a competitive advantage over the other chimps as it is no longer hungry. If the chimp then learns to associate the implementation of the twig with the increased foraging ability, operant conditioning has occurred.

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