BOOKS: The Smartest Animals on the Planet
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2009:
The Smartest Animals on the Planet: Extraordinary Tales of the
Natural World’s Cleverest Creatures
by Sally Boysen & Deborah Custance
Firefly Books (P.O. Box 1338, Ellicot Station, Buffalo, NY
14205), 2009. 192 pages, illustrated. $35.00, hardcover.
Ohio State University in February 2006 retired to Primarily
Primates a colony of seven chimpanzees kept since 1983 by researcher
Sally Boysen. Opposing the transfer, Boysen allied herself with
PETA. Ensuing litigation, ended by settlement in August 2009, led
to Friends of Animals annexing Primarily Primates later in 2006, and
appears to have cumulatively cost Primarily Primates, FoA, and PETA
approximately $1 million.
While all this was underway, Boysen was apparently writing
The Smartest Animals on the Planet.
“Previous observations in the wild have provided
documentation,” Boysen says, that New Caledonian Crows “are capable
of using different types of tools to exploit different food sources.”
But she does not say who made the observations and when.
Boysen adds that Oxford University researchers wondered if
crows understand the relationship in tasks that require tool use.
They supposedly devised a series of “exciting studies” that led them
to a “number of conclusions.” But all we learn from this anecdote is
that according to Boysen’s summary, observations suggest that crows
are born with a predisposition for tool use. Who the Oxford
researchers were, when, and what their actual findings were cannot
be verified or followed up easily from the clues Boysen shares.
Even casual visitors to sea otter coves along the west coast
of the U.S. may have watched sea otters using stones to break open
shellfish and crustaceans. For those who have not, Boysen offers no
attributed eyewitness testimony in describing this behavor.
“New observations of wild chimpanzees in Senegal, West
Africa,” Boyson adds, “reveal that they manufacture and use spears
to hunt small primates.”
According to a graphic on page 38, a female chimpanzee picks
out a sturdy stick that she whittles down with her teeth. She plunges
the spear into the hole of a tree-a hiding place for bush babies-and
that’s dinner. Relatively few people have ever seen this. Again
Boysen refers to studies and observations, but offers no dates,
names or locations.
Boysen does detail some research, including Irene
Pepperberg’s work with African gray parrots and Otto Koehler’s
experiments with birds in the 1930s and 1940s, done to determine
their ability to crunch numbers. But when did a young chimp named
Ali, born in West Africa, learn an artificial language system in
Japan? One may find out through web searches. One will not find out
from Boysen’s book.
“Recent field studies by primatologists have revealed that
the vocalizations of baboons have far more substance than previously
thought,” Boysen says. How recent? Last year or last decade? Who
were the primatologists? Where was the study done, using what
Stanford University researcher Robert Sapolsky has done
decades of work, both in labs and in the wild, that may fit
Boysen’s description. If Boysen means Sapolsky’s work, he deserves
credit. If she means someone else’s work, this should be identified.
Boysen credits Austrian bee researcher Karl von Frisch
(1886-1982) with spending hundreds of hours studying bee intelligence
and communication, but again fails to say when or where.
Von Frisch, who discovered the scientific foundations of bee
behavior and beekeeping. is often mentioned with fellow Nobel Prize
winner Konrad Lorenz and Otto Koehler (1889-1974) as pioneers of
ethology. Unlike Lorenz, whose publications about wolves and dogs
have been debunked as colored by Nazi idiology, Von Frisch produced
work which has mostly stood up. But, in common with Lorenz and
Koehler, Von Frisch advanced theories that tended to reinforce
tenets of Nazism.
Boysen reportedly lost her chimp colony after nine successive
grant applications failed to win funding to continue her work with
them. A reader may wonder whether those applications failed through
a comparable lack of supporting documentation.
-Debra J. White