Chris Packham's Animal Einsteins

Are dogs as smart as we like to think, and dolphins wearing lipstick...
16 February 2021

Interview with 

Chris Packham, Naturalist and Broadcaster


Dog with Lion Hat


A new nature show is coming to the BBC - called 'Chris Packham’s Animal Einsteins!' And Chris Packham came to tell us more...

Chris - We thought we'd take some snapshots at the latest science regarding animal cognition. We've been a bit generous with cognition, so we're looking at animals which, anthropomorphically at least, appear smart and clever to us. Some of their adaptations, both behaviourally and physiologically, are quite astonishing. But we've also focused on the new science that's coming to the fore about cognition, and also those species that we're familiar with. So we've looked in particular at some domestic animals, which we like to think are smart, but for a long time science has been telling us they're not as smart as we like to think they are! But it turns out that we, as opposed to the scientists, could have been right all along.

Eva - What was your favourite, smartest animal that you had a look at then?

Chris - I'm a dog lover; I've got a couple of poodles. I keep poodles because allegedly they're amongst the two smartest breeds of dog. But as you probably know, they have never passed what we call the mirror test. Now the mirror test is where an animal can look into a mirror and recognise its reflection as itself. So when Nancy, my poodle, looks into the mirror, we don't honestly know whether she recognises another dog, another poodle, or Nancy. But a scientist in America has just done a neat bit of work; he took his dog out for a walk in the snow around a regular route, and the dog - as you know - will urinate, they'll mark their range; and then he took the dog home. He went back out with a bucket and a spade and he moved some of the yellow snow, the dogs urine - which we know is particular to each animal, it has an individual scent - and then he moved it around the route, and then took his dog for a second walk. And what he found was that when his dog encountered its own urine, but in a place where it hasn't deposited it, it became extremely agitated. And what we are now postulating is that dogs might manifest a sense of self, a theory of mind, but not in a visual way. And that might make sense. Dogs are not terribly brilliant when it comes to their eyesight - they're dichromatic, they see with the equivalent of human male red-green colour blindness, but their sense of smell as you know is profound. So it could well be that we have been rather blinkered, if you'll forgive the pun, when it comes to looking at these creatures and assessing their intelligence, and it could be that they are manifesting that and using it with a different sensory capability than we can relate to.

Eva - Amazing - so they're not visualising themselves being somewhere, they're smell-o-rising themselves as being in a different location!

Chris - Exactly. They know themselves through smell, not through vision. We've tested this previously with dolphins. Dolphins in captivity have had a little bit of lipstick put on top of their head. They swim up to the mirror, they twist and they turn, they see the lipstick and then they swim off and try and wipe it off. So quite clearly they know it's them. But what's also interesting is that experiment, with the little mark on the head of the animal and a mirror, has just been performed with a tiny fish, a reef fish called a bluestreak cleaner wrasse, and it passed the mirror test. So this tiny little fish understands, when it looks into the mirror, that that is it as an individual. And of course the repercussions of this are quite profound, because if you know yourself as an individual, you will know all of the other cleaner wrasse, perhaps other species of fish, as individuals. And that means understanding their characteristics and personalities. And the more you can analyse that, the better it is for you; the greater advantage you can take of their strengths and weaknesses.


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