Extraordinary Animals

Returning to Five for a new run of programmes is the lighthearted documentary series that profiles a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. The first series of Extraordinary Animals introduced such talented beasts as Hong the artistic elephant, Griffin the talkative parrot and Ayumu, the computer-literate chimp. The first instalment of the new series focuses on Maggie – a particularly intelligent dog.

Maggie is a seven-year-old Jack Russell who has lived with her owner, Jesse, since she was a puppy. She can dance and she can sing, to a degree, but she has also developed a skill that could change the way people think about their four-legged friends. This cunning canine can count.

As soon as Jesse took Maggie home, the two struck up a unique relationship. The proud owner began training the puppy to perform all kinds of tricks and soon realised that Maggie was a very clever animal. “I knew she was special right away,” says Jesse. At three months old, the dog would collect Jesse a tissue whenever she sneezed, and not long after, she learned how to mimic speech by opening and closing her mouth at her master’s command. But her most incredible skill came at the age of six months. Jesse held up her hand and Maggie used her paw to tap out the number of digits she saw. “I fell off my chair,” recalls Jesse. “It was truly bizarre.”

Before long, Maggie was capable of simple addition and subtraction sums, and later of multiplication and division. But can it really be possible for an animal to solve mathematical problems? Animal behaviourist Robert DeFranco of the American College of Applied Science thinks not, and has travelled to Maggie’s home town in California to investigate. “If it’s possible that this particular Jack Russell terrier has evolved to the point that it can do math,” he says, doubtfully, “well… that would be quite interesting.”

extraordinary animals
the memory chimp (7/7)

Concluding tonight is the documentary series that profiles a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. Tonight’s film focuses on Ayumu, a seven-year-old chimpanzee living in a scientific research centre in Japan, whose amazing abilities are changing the popular perception of chimpanzee intelligence.

Having been born in captivity, Ayumu has lived all his life in Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute (PRI) and seems to thrive in this manmade environment. His love of mischief means that he is often the centre of attention in his group but, for the scientists who study him, it is not his energy that makes him special. Ayumu has been taught how to use a computer and partakes in a series of tests designed to measure his intelligence, the results of which are changing the way scientists regard chimpanzees.

The story begins 30 years ago in the African forests where wild chimpanzees live. It is here that Ai, Ayumu’s mother, was born. At the age of one, Ai was taken to the PRI –one of the most important centres for chimpanzee research in the world –and placed under the care of Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa. Most of Ai’s time is spent in a giant play area carefully designed to represent the chimps’ natural environment. However, this area is attached via tunnels to the PRI’s research building –and it is here that Ai has her lessons. Using a touch-screen computer and a reward system, Ai has been taught how to count and recognise a number of English letters and Japanese characters.

Ai’s skills have earned her a place in headlines around the world, along with her own website and a role in a Japanese TV series. To writer and anthropologist Carol Jamie, Ai is a real star. “Chimpanzees like Ai are ambassadors to the species,” she says. “These clever captive chimps help us humans understand that they really are extremely intelligent and deserve to be understood.” But Ai is not the only animal allowing for such inter-species diplomacy –the campaign is now being led by a new generation of chimps.

When Ai gave birth to Ayumu in 2000, scientists were keen that the young chimp would follow in his mother’s footsteps –but rather than learning directly from them, he would learn from Ai. The first breakthrough came during a teaching session when Ai was distracted, allowing Ayumu access to the computer screen. Having watched his mother perform the same tasks, Ayumu immediately began to identify colour patterns and was soon counting as well as Ai. His case fascinated researchers who wanted to find a way of tracking the development of his mind. “I really wanted to know the chimpanzee mind,” says Professor Matsuzawa. “How do chimpanzees see this world? How do they think?”

In order to discover which abilities are common amongst humans and chimps, Matsuzawa developed a game to test one of the basic abilities of everyday human life –working memory. The numbers 1 to 9 were randomly scattered across Ayumu’s touch screen. After a few seconds, the numbers would disappear leaving empty squares. Ayumu would then use his working memory to touch the squares in numerical order –something he managed with 90 per cent accuracy. To show how remarkable this skill really is, the director of tonight’s film, Chris, sits the same test, and only manages one correct sequence in 30 attempts. “It’s really very, very difficult,” he says.

Dr Nick Newton-Fisher, who works with chimps in the wild, is not surprised by Ayumu’s skills. “Chimps may have particular cognitive abilites that are different and maybe, in some aspects, better than humans,” he says. But Ayumu’s remarkable talents do not stop there. In a further test designed to explore his eidetic memory, more commonly known as photographic memory, Ayumu was able to remember number sequences having only seen them for a fifth of a second. Not even British memory champion Ben Pridmore is capable of this. “I’d rather not be seen on TV doing worse than a chimpanzee at a memory test,” he says. “I’ll never live it down at the competitions!”

extraordinary animals
the super ‘sonic’ dolphin (6/7)

Continuing tonight is the documentary series profiling a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. Tonight’s film introduces Luna, a sixyear-old bottlenose dolphin whose starring role in a radical new scientific project is allowing humans and dolphins to communicate on a new level.

The Kolmården dolphinarium near Sweden’s Baltic coast is home to a group of captive bottlenose dolphins who partake in a series of displays for the public. Regular training for the tourist shows is part of the animals’ daily routine, but these dolphins do not only entertain. Outside of the limelight, six-year-old Luna is part of a unique experiment by scientists to better understand dolphin communication.

Leading the experiment at Kolmården is Professor Mats Amundin, a biologist who has studied wild and captive dolphins for over 40 years. “Dolphins have a complex way of communicating among themselves,” he explains. “They have a way of expressing emotions via sound which can be very advanced and very dynamic.”

Dolphins have good eyesight and can convey messages using tactile and visual signals, but poor visibility in the murky depths of the water means that the acoustic channel is the most important means of communication. Using an elaborate system of squeaks, whistles and clicks, dolphins can detect danger, hunt and communicate with each other over great distances.

Among the noises that dolphins make, Professor Amundin has recognised what he calls a “dolphin giggle” –a pulsed sound followed by a whistle emitted by young animals when they playfight. But this is just one of hundreds of different combinations of whistles and clicks in a dolphin’s repertoire. Deciphering these sounds may hold the key to unlocking the secrets of dolphin intelligence.

At the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Dr Vincent Janik has been studying bottlenose dolphins in Scotland and the Bahamas. Using specialised underwater microphones called hydrophones, he has recorded the chatter of a number of animals and concluded that each animal creates its own signature whistle which it uses to broadcast its identity within the group. “Each animal invents this sound by itself,” he explains. After collecting the recordings of dolphin communication, Dr Janik uses a computer to process the data and extract whistle patterns. However, this method of decoding takes hundreds of hours and provides inconclusive evidence as to the meaning of the numerous sounds.

Back in Sweden, Professor Amundin has come up with a radical idea that he hopes will provide an alternative route into the dolphin’s mind. “I wanted to have something that could convert their sound into something that we humans are good at –namely vision,” he explains. To this end, he has developed a giant underwater computer game called an echolocation visualisation and interface system –or ELVIS, for short. The system projects different shapes –each representing a fish –onto a large submersible screen. Using echolocation –the dolphin’s answer to sonar – Luna and the other dolphins are able to choose what fish they want to eat. As a youngster, Luna is the quickest to grasp the technique and is able to hit her chosen target instantly every time.

ELVIS is only in its infancy, but Professor Amundin hopes that it can be used in the future to help captive dolphins choose toys, play music and reveal their emotions. But there is a far more important aspect to Amundin’s research. In understanding more about echolocation, he hopes that thousands of dolphins and porpoises in the wild can be saved from fatal entanglements in fishing nets. At Kolmården, Luna will never know the beauty, freedom and danger of the wild, but she is playing a very important role in the conservation of her species. “One of the most exciting things with dolphins,” concludes Amundin, “is that we have so much more to learn.”

extraordinary animals
the greatest ape (5/7)

Continuing tonight is the documentary series profiling a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. Tonight’s film introduces Azy, a 30-year-old orang-utan with incredible mental abilities. Over a number of years, Azy has displayed his intelligence by recognising symbols and objects; demonstrating self-awareness; and showing exceptional memory skills.

The Great Ape Trust in Iowa is home to one of the most remarkable primates ever studied – cheerful orang-utan Azy. This amazing furry fellow has been research partner to Dr Robert Shumaker for nearly 25 years. Inquisitive, gentle and even slightly shy, Azy has been instrumental in teaching primatologists more about the minds of these poorly understood animals. Over the years, he and Dr Shumaker have forged an incredibly strong bond and together they have developed a language which enables Azy to communicate.

Azy can use symbols and syntax presented on a computer monitor to express his thoughts and desires. Rob has taught Azy to recognize over 70 symbols representing various objects, including food, people and other orang-utans. This is a complex task to master, and even some humans have had problems grasping its intricacies.

Azy’s other surprising feats include evidence of his self-awareness, which he proves by taking a mirror-recognition test. However, Dr Schumaker is truly astonished when he shows Azy a video clip of an orang-utan he used to live with at another zoo, and whom he has not seen for eight years. It is obvious that Azy not only recognises his hairy old pal, but reacts emotionally to her as well.

Finally, Azy undergoes a long-term memory exercise to see if he can remember a test of logic and strategy that he last performed over eight years ago. His scores the first time around were consistently higher than all the other apes tested. If he can pass the test this time, Azy will prove that he truly is the greatest ape of all.

extraordinary animals
the genius parrot (4/7)

Continuing tonight is the documentary series profiling a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. This programme explores the case of Griffin – a parrot whose extraordinary cognitive skills have altered the scientific perception of avian intelligence.

Griffin is an amazing 12-year-old African grey parrot whose abilities are changing the way scientists think about birds. Dr Irene Pepperberg, a noted expert on avian communication, works closely with Griffin and other grey parrots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been teaching the birds to perform complex tasks of the kind previously thought to be exclusive to humans, great apes and monkeys. As well as being able to mimic human speech, Griffin can label objects, identify colours and shapes, and combine the words he has learned to form simple phrases.

According to Dr Pepperberg, Griffin’s behaviour is not just an instinctive response, but rather the result of reasoning and choice. In displaying combinatorial behaviour – recognising relationships between words and objects – Griffin shows signs of an intelligence similar to that of a young child. “Human children start combining their labels at about 22 months,” Pepperberg explains. “The simultaneous emergence of both vocal and physical combinatorial behaviours was always thought to be a purely primate trait, derived from primate brain area.”

In the case of human children, the emergence of such behaviour represents a thought process which will eventually lead to the development of language. Can the same behaviour in parrots mean that they are also capable of language? “I wouldn’t go so far to say it is syntax in Griffin,” says Pepperberg, “but it is definitely a rulegoverned behaviour.”

As well as Griffin, tonight’s documentary examines the case of Einstein – a 22-year-old African grey female from the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee with an incredible talent for mimicry. Performing at a nursery school, Einstein entertains the children with a repertoire of over 200 sounds and words. Stephanie White works with Einstein at the zoo: “African greys naturally like to mimic sounds,” she says. “She’s pretty exceptional, though – not all African greys are like her.” However, Einstein’s behaviour differs from Griffin’s in that it is based on reward, not reasoning –White uses a system of treats to teach the parrot how to perform on cue.

Professor Erich Jarvis studies the neurobiology of vocal communication at Duke University in North Carolina. By using birds as his scientific model, he has found that humans and some birds share a similar brain pathway – something which is lacking in chimpanzees. “Not even the chimpanzee, our closest living relative, is a vocal learner,” says Jarvis. The professor’s research investigates this relationship from an evolutionary perspective and suggests that humans and birds have a shared ancestry.

Through her work with Griffin, Dr Pepperberg has also concluded that the shared vocal abilities of humans and parrots has an evolutionary significance. “It suggests that there is either a very distant ancestor common to these groups,” she explains, “or that there is what we call ‘convergent evolution’ – meaning that these behaviours arose in these different species separately.”

At the end of tonight’s film, the nursery children who were treated to a display by Einstein are given the same tests as Griffin in order to compare the abilities of humans and parrots. While the results may not be of scientific significance, they are very revealing and entertaining.

extraordinary animals
hong the elephant (1/7)

Beginning tonight is a series of documentaries profiling members of the animal kingdom who have amazing talents. This first programme explores the extraordinary abilities of Hong, an elephant whose painting skills have rocked the art world and challenged hitherto accepted views on animal intelligence. Can Hong’s work pass as art in a top London gallery?

For centuries, humans have thought of elephants as powerful brutes and employed them for their immense strength. However, Hong, a six-year-old Asian elephant from northern Thailand, is about to challenge this perception. She can paint with such dexterity that her work has impressed elephant experts and artists worldwide. Her artistic career is the result of a visionary scheme which was set up when logging was banned in Thailand in 1989, leaving countless elephants without jobs.

New York-based artist Alexander Melamid decided to help the newly unemployed animals by training them to paint – and then selling the paintings to raise money for the upkeep of the elephants. However, his ambitions do not stop at raising money. “We’re trying to bring elephants into the temple of art,” he explains. “Maybe the Museum of Modern Art will give us a show?”

London-based artist Vanda Harvey is intrigued by the reports of Hong’s artistic prowess and wants to find out more. She hopes to work with Hong and discover if the elephant can produce something that will stand up to the scrutiny of a London art gallery. “What I’m interested in finding out is if there’s a more poetic spirit there,” she says. “So I’m probably going to liberate her from her day job of painting other elephants!”

Vanda travels to Mae Taeng elephant camp in northern Thailand, where she gets her first glimpse of Hong entertaining tourists with her painting show – an important source of income since the logging ban. Believing that her new pupil shows definite promise, Vanda speaks to Richard Lair, founder of the Thai Elephant Orchestra, to find out what he thinks about the idea. He explains that the astonishing figurative paintings Hong produces are actually the result of her trainer standing beside her with a hand on her tusk, “almost like a technician working with robotic arms.” However, he does believe that when the elephants create abstracted, undirected art, the animals’ creativity is revealed and their personalities exposed.

Inspired by the suggestion that elephants can express themselves, Vanda aims to set Hong free to create some abstract pieces. She starts her pupil off with some charcoal, while Hong’s trainer steps back to avoid influencing her. “It’s amazingly intense for me, watching Hong draw,” says Vanda, “because I didn’t know what was going to happen.” After the charcoal comes paint, and a two-metre canvas is quickly filled with sweeping, colourful, almost joyful strokes. The next day, Vanda supervises Hong as she completes a series of canvases to be taken back to London. Vanda is confident that the paintings will stand up against competition from human artists: “There are far worse paintings hanging in galleries all over the world as we speak,” she says. “Probably some with far less emotion in, and far less tension – and certainly far less joy!”

Two weeks later, the paintings are displayed in a top London gallery to which critics, art buyers and the public are invited. None of these people are aware that the artwork they are looking at was done by an elephant. How will they react when they learn the extraordinary truth?

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