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Conservation Can Be Enhanced By Human Study of Animal Cognition

Conservation Can Be Enhanced By Human Study of Animal Cognition


Harvard Research Associate Irene Pepperberg studies the cognitive abilities of African Grey Parrot Griffin. | Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard staff photographer

Understanding similarities in the cognitive and moral capacities of humans with animals can make humans better conservationists, speakers told journalists at an event organized by AAAS’ program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.

Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard University research associate and lecturer, reviewed her work with African grey parrots at the annual meeting of the Religion News Association in Silver Spring, Maryland, on 23 September, highlighting similarities between children and birds in tests of self-control.  The meeting drew nearly 100 journalists.

“We tend to conserve what’s like us,” said Pepperberg. “The more I can show people that these birds are like us, the more I hope they will be conserved.”

In early October, the triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), the world’s largest wildlife trade conference, granted the African grey parrot the highest level of international protection, including the prohibition of international commercial trade of the animal.

Pepperberg has studied the grey parrot for three decades. She is recognized for research on a parrot named Alex who learned the names of about 100 different objects, seven colors, five shapes, and quantities up to and including the number eight. Her studies showed how the parrot was able to understand the concept of categories and the meaning of “same” and “different.”

“You could take an object out of your pocket and ask what’s the  ‘same’ or ‘different’ and he would say ‘color,’  ‘shape,’ ‘matter,’ or ‘none’ if nothing were the same or different,” said Pepperberg.  

Alex made up words like “banery,” a combination of banana and cherry that he used to identify an apple and “banacker,” a combination of banana and cracker that he used to communicate his dislike for dried bananas.

Pepperberg focused her research on how the avian brain works: “How are resources allocated within the avian brain — a brain that is physically smaller and somewhat differently organized from, but that is still evolutionarily similar to, that of primates?”

Since 2007, after Alex’s death, Pepperberg has continued studying other African grey parrots, including their perception and cognition – optical illusions, delayed gratification, liquid conservation, and probabilistic reasoning.

Her work on delayed gratification is based on the “marshmallow test” designed in 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel that offered 4-year-old children two marshmallows instead of one if they could wait to eat the first. The 30 percent of the preschoolers who succeeded at waiting 15 minutes found ways to distract themselves by looking away from the marshmallow, closing their eyes, among other strategies. Years later, Mischel surveyed the same group and found that the children who had exhibited self-control experienced more success as adults.

Variations of the test have been done with non-human animals. Researchers, for example, tried this type of test with African grey parrots for ‘more’ and failed. But Pepperberg’s bird Griffin understood the English word “wait” and did not require the kind of pre-training that hindered others, she said. He was accustomed to waiting for food, but she wanted to determine if he could choose to delay gratification to get something better.

Wait times were randomized and a variety of treats were used so that Griffin was not being trained to wait. He succeeded on almost all of the trials. “He got better at figuring out ways of delaying himself,” Pepperberg said.

In a side-by-side video of Griffin and the children, similarities between the human and non-human participants are obvious. Both birds and young children took a variety of approaches to resisting temptation through distraction, including pushing treats away and closing their eyes.

“Knowing the intelligence of these birds, maybe we will use this knowledge to improve the care of companion animals, use these birds as models for how to teach children with disabilities, and improve our efforts at conserving them in the wild,” she said.

Kelsey Dallas, a Deseret News national reporter, urged journalists to consider how Pepperberg’s research, and studies like it, enhance understanding of the capacities of animals. “I want to encourage you to dive into this intersection of religion and science,” Dallas added. “You can share surprise, joy, and interest with other people.”

A video aired at the meeting also examined traits humans and animals share. Called “To Be Human,” the video was produced for AAAS’ Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) project known as Science for Seminaries.

“Human morality is not something we developed from scratch,” said Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal, noting in the video that building blocks of morality like empathy and reciprocity are found in other species. Chimpanzees, for example, comfort each other after a fight. “Whether other species have the whole thing that we call human morality, that’s a different issue,” he said.