Archive for March, 2010

If you want to be unnerved by the intelligence of animals, you should visit the zoo and watch the gorillas. Part of your disquiet will be caused by the simple fact that gorillas look more like you than do many other intelligent creatures such as golden retrievers, octopuses and blue whales.

Kira and Kira, Franklin Park Zoo, Boston, Sept. 2002, just after their 3rd birthdays

But gorillas also act more like you. They scratch their chins, pal around with their buddies, gaze into each other’s eyes, grab their sibling’s toys, and pick their noses. They have complex systems of communication and they’ve even been spotted using tools of sorts–for example, poking a stick into a stream to gauge its depth.

It is not hard to recognize traits such as intelligence, affection, playfulness, and hostility in gorillas because these traits look strikingly similar among humans. It’s not so simple with other species. Even the behavior of another mammal, like the blue whale, is poorly understood.

None of this is surprising. Humans are more closely related to gorillas than to any other living creatures on the planet, save chimpanzees. Turn back the evolutionary clock a mere 8 million years and you’ll find that the ancestors of modern humans and modern gorillas were one and the same.

Put another way, 8 million years ago, your ancestors and the gorilla’s ancestors were going to the same family picnics.

This is an especially weird matter to contemplate if, like me, you had a daughter named Kira, who was born shortly before a baby Western Lowland gorilla, also named Kira, was born at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo.

There was I, nursing my 6-month old Kira. There was hairy mama Kiki, nursing her 6-month old Kira. There was I handing my two-year old Kira some grapes, there was Kiki, handing her two year old Kira some grapes.

A few months ago I found myself again at the Franklin Park Zoo with my family. (Our now 10-year old Kira innocently asked, “Mommy, how old is the gorilla that was born the same time I was?”)

This visit, however, it was the scene in the Reptile House that stopped us in our tracks. In one corner of a big tank was a large turtle jamming its nose into a crack in the rock wall (we’ll call her the mommy). Right behind her was a small turtle (whom we’ll call the kid) trying its hardest to get the mommy’s attention.

We watched for about fifteen minutes: Kid tries to pry mommy out of the corner with its head. Kid bonks mommy on the shell repeatedly. Kid attempts to shimmy its way in between mommy and rock face. All to no avail.

We couldn’t help but feel bad for the little guy. Also, I was perplexed. Reptiles are not known for their higher level social behaviors. Most reptiles don’t even get to meet their parents, who usually take off before the babies hatch. Neither do reptiles have much of a relationship with their mates. Nor do they do scratch their chins, pal around, or pick their noses.

Reptiles headed down a different evolutionary line from humans several hundred million years ago–ridiculously further back in time than gorillas and humans parted ways. In general, the longer it is since a common ancestor occurred between two species, the more different those two species will be. Several hundred million years is plenty of time for the reptilian brain to become almost entirely unfathomable to us humans.

Watching the two turtles interact at the zoo, we thought we might be witnessing some never-before-seen complex social behavior in reptiles: a child demanding attention from its mother.

Back home, I emailed the zoo about the turtles. It turns out we were observing the oldest form of harassment in the book. The big turtle was a female common cooter, the little turtle, an amorous male red-eared slider. Higher level behavior, ha!
Truth be told, I was a little deflated.

But a few weeks later I came across a children’s book: Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship. The story begins with Owen, a young hippopotamus orphaned by flooding from the 2004 tsunami. Taken to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, Owen immediately started following after another park resident: a 130-year-old giant Aldabra tortoise named Mzee.

Then, contrary to everything we thought we understood about reptiles, Mzee responded to Owen’s attentions. Within months, the two were sleeping snuggled up together. Mzee taught Owen how to eat and what to eat. They developed their own form of communication: one would nip the other’s tail when he wanted to go somewhere. They used vocalizations with each other that were different from any normally heard among either hippos or tortoises.

As this wondrous friendship evolved, Owen’s behaviors were not startlingly different from the normal behaviors of a hippo growing up among other hippos. Requiring social contact, learning how to survive from an older animal, complex communication–all these activities are normal for hippos.

Mzee’s behavior, however, was utterly unprecedented among reptiles and profoundly challenges the depth of our understanding of other species.

Perhaps the reason reptiles don’t usually act more sociable, intelligent, and downright mammalian is because their scaly little brains simply aren’t up to the task. Or perhaps, for 300 million years, they just haven’t been in the mood.

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