Clever is knowing your bananas

11th February 2000 at 00:00
The American professor whose research into animal intelligence has attracted worldwide interest is coming to Britain. David Budge reports.

'Kanzi can produce the sort of sentence you might expect from a human child aged 3 12' WHAT is the second most intelligent animal species on the planet?

Some would say homo sapiens, as we often seem less shrewd than our cats.

Scientific opinion is, however, divided between the dolphin and the chimpanzee.

Recent research in South Africa has suggested that the dolphin's reasoning powers are second only to man's. But Dr Duane Rumbaugh, Regent's professor of psychology at Georgia State University, Atlanta, begs to disagree. He believes that Kanzi, a 19-year-old bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee), is simply "the most intelligent non-human being on Earth".

Professor Rumbaugh and his colleagues communicate with Kanzi and other bonobos with the aid of a special keyboard linked to a voice synthesiser. The keyboard has buttons marked with symbols standing for words such as "orange" and "coffee" or abstract concepts such as "good".

The researchers say that Kanzi can produce the sort of sentence you might expect from a human child aged 3 12. He is also said to understand more than 650 spoken sentences - the level of comprehension displayed by a five or six year-old.

Kanzi not only understands nouns and verbs, he can respond to sentences that include a subject, verb and object such as: "We need you to cut up the apples, OK?" or "Could you go and put the pine needles in the garbage?"

Dr Leslie Sheldon, director of the English language teaching division at the University of Strathclyde, saw Kanzi demonstrate his prowess at Georgia State last month and was impressed.

"During my visit Kanzi pressed the lexigram keys which generated a synthesised request for a banana. Upon being told that there was none the chimpanzee disappointedly buried its head in its hands then pointed deliberately to a corner of the room where a ripe banana, unnoticed by researchers, sat on a shelf."

A number of previous studies have shown that apes can communicate with humas using sign language if they receive intensive training. But Professor Rumbaugh's work, which has attracted a three-year grant from the US National Institute of Health, is nevertheless seen as a significant breakthrough.

Not everyone is convinced by such studies, however. Dr Noam Chomsky, the theoretical linguist, has argued that language is innate and unique to humans.

Trying to teach linguistic skills to animals was therefore like attempting to teach humans to flap their arms and fly, he once famously said.

Dr Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University, responded to those comments by naming the chimpanzee he was studying "Nim Chimpsky", but even he eventually concluded that apes cannot create sentences.

Kanzi may, however, still prove them both wrong.

Professor Rumbaugh will be giving a series of lectures at the University of Strathclyde later this year. Further information about the Language Research Center can be obtained at http:www.gsu.eduwwwlrc


ALEX, an African grey parrot trained at the University of Arizona, can distinguish numbers up to six, recognise seven colours and five shapes and can understand concepts such as bigger, smaller, same and different.

When shown a tray of objects of different shapes, colours and materials, he can indicate how many are red or blue. He also answers correctly when asked such questions as: "Can you find an object that is yellow and three cornered."

A 21-year-old orang-utan at Atlanta Zoo is said to have a sign-language vocabulary of 2,000 words. Last year it was reported that it had saved money that it had received for carrying out tasks and had told scientists: "I want to buy a pool."

AI, a female chimp, has learned to use Arabic numerals to represent numbers and can count up to nine. Researchers at Kyoto University say that she can also remember the correct sequence of any five random single-digit numbers. This means that she has the same counting ability as an average pre-school child - the average adult can memorise number and letter sequences of seven characters.

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