Do they know more than we think they do?

My husband told me a story about the red orangutan that he read recently. Scientists had been studying a group of these primates in the Gunung Leuser  National Park, located in the southwest corner of Sumatra.  The orangutans live in a very private area, relatively undisturbed, and although orangutans usually tend to live on their own, this group lives in small packs together, seemingly because they need each other in such a remote land.  The result is that they are actually learning behaviours from each other, and scientists were excited to discover that they were actually using tools.

These orangutans have a favorite fruit called “puwin”, which has small spines covering a fleshy fruit interior.  The orangutans have discovered that by sliding a thin stick into a crack on the fruit, they can remove the inner flesh without having to touch the spines.  They’ve also been seen using sticks to catch ants and gather honey.  You can read more about these insights here.

This little story reminded me of a fascinating book that was just released last year called Alex & Me by Irene M. Pepperberg.  Ms. Pepperberg is a scientist who owned an African Grey parrot for more than 30 years named Alex.  Although many of these birds live very long lives, Alex died prematurely at the age of 31.  What was even more astonishing was the fact that his lat words to Ms. Pepperberg were ” You be good. I love you.”

alexAlthough when they met, birds were not thought to possess any potential for language due to the fact that their brains are so small, but for the 30 years that they worked together, Alex proved that he could add, sound out words, understand concepts such as biggr, smaller, more, fewer and none and he showed an emotional side to Ms. Pepperberg that is rare, although now thought possible in other birds of his type.  This is a touching book, as well as a wonderful insight into what might be possible in other animals or birds.  It will definitely make you think twice when your dog or cat seems to understand exactly what you are saying.  You can find out a bit more about Irene Pepperberg and her beloved Alex on her website here.


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