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The Animal Noble Prizes of the Decade

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Time has just chosen its "Man of the Year," whose intelligence was immediately questioned, so why not review some genuine, proven Einsteins, even if they are animals?

Animals seem to be getting smarter all the time. Since 2000, discovery after discovery has put a dent in human uniqueness claims. At the start of the decade, most of us believed that only chimpanzees might come anywhere near our wonderful human intellect, but by 2010 we realize that also dogs, birds, monkeys, and elephants challenge the human-animal divide, which has begun to look like Swiss cheese.

Of the 10 Animal Noble Prizes for Overall Smartness* over the last decade, some are given to individual geniuses, others to species as a whole. All prizes are supported by actual research by actual scientists, published in peer-reviewed journals. The monetary award is zero, but it's the honor that counts. All 10 have received extensive media attention. You probably remember some of them, even if only vaguely. This is my way of celebrating the end of a decade, which has been miserable in so many ways, but not for the field of animal cognition, which is on a roll!

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1: Ayumu, a juvenile chimpanzee in Kyoto University, Japan, deserves to be number one (Ichiban!) as he is the only animal on this list to have surpassed humans on a cognitive task. He did something Japanese college students fail at -- even after extensive training. Ayumu can in one brief glance of 210 milliseconds (faster than you can blink!) memorize a series of numbers on a screen and then tap them in the right order even though the numbers themselves have been replaced by white squares. For a video, look here.

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2: Happy, an Asian elephant at New York's Bronx Zoo is the first of her kind to pass the mirror test. Very few mammals do: only humans, apes, and dolphins. The test consists of a mark on the head that cannot be seen without a mirror. By rubbing the actual mark on its head Happy demonstrated that she connected the elephant in the mirror with herself -- a sign of self-awareness. The newspapers said "She's Happy and she knows it!" Here is Happy on a video taken from within the mirror with a big white cross on her forehead.

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3: Rico, a border collie understands more than 200 German words. When he is asked to retrieve an object from among many spread out in another room, he returns with the right one even if he has only heard the object named once. Such rapid word-learning has astonished scientists. Rico, too, is on video!

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4: Betty, a New Caledonian crow at Oxford University, UK, is the first bird to manufacture a tool. For a long time this was considered the hallmark of humanity ("Man the Tool-Maker"), but the skill is now also known of the great apes. Faced with food at the bottom of a tube, Betty bent a piece of metal wire into a hook to fish the food out. On the video, we first see her try in vain with a straight wire. Scientists still debate how "insightful" her behavior is.

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5: Ardi, also known as Ardipithecus ramides. It is a bit embarassing to include this 4.4 million old human ancestor in a list of animals, but since Ardi had a chimp-size brain and grasping big toes, she was definitely not human, which makes her an animal. Given her reduced canine teeth, it is assumed she was relatively peaceful, perhaps more like bonobos than chimpanzees. We assume that she was smart, but it has proven hard to test her. No videos of Ardi!

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6: Capuchin monkeys at the Living Links Center, in Atlanta, seem to have a sense of fairness. These monkeys happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. They become agitated, throw down their measly cucumbers and go on strike. Their protest reminds the criticism of the outlandish bonuses on Wall Street. Let them eat cuke, I'd say!

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7: Santino, a male chimp at Furuvik Zoo, in Sweden, was seen every morning to carefully collect stones from the moat around his enclosure only to put them in neat little piles. Later in the day, when there were lots of screaming and yelling visitors (one wonders who are the "animals" at a zoo) those stones came in handy as ammunition to pelt the public with. Planning for the future -- also known as mental time travel -- has been confirmed with rigorous experiments on both apes and scrub jays. Until recently, time travel was assumed to be impossible without language.

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8: Chimp weapon use. On the savanna in Senegal, chimps were seen sharpening the ends of sticks with their teeth, then using them as spears to jab and skewer small primates (bush babies) hidden in hollow tree trunks. The hunting was mainly a female activity, perhaps related to a craving for meat in the absence of large game. See the video.

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9: Mice in a lab in Montreal, Canada, showed empathy with others in that they became more sensitive to pain after having seen other mice in pain. The mood transfer worked only between mice who knew each other, not strangers. Empathy -- a rapidly growing topic in neuroscience -- used to be associated with brain power, but is now thought to be far more basic. It may have started very early in mammalian evolution.

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10. Aping apes. First came the claims that only humans imitate. Then a collaboration between the Living Links Centers of Atlanta, GA, and St. Andrews, UK, reported that chimps do not only just as well, but in fact better than humans: they skip actions unneeded to attain their goal, whereas children blindly copy everything under the sun. The "over-imitation" by children is now looked at as a good thing, though. Go figure: humans will always stay on top! Here a video of the ape studies with a lunatic interviewer.

* I had to change the name out of respect for Alfred Nobel, who would never have approved of animal awardees.