NOVA Goes Inside the Animal Mind

Airdate: 
Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 8:00pm

We have all gazed into a creature’s eyes and wondered: What is it thinking about? What does it know? Now, the revolutionary science of animal cognition is revealing hard evidence about how animals understand the world around them, uncovering their remarkable problem-solving abilities and exploring the complexity of their powers of communication and even their emotions.

The NOVA miniseries, Inside Animal Minds, airing on KUED over three consecutive Wednesday nights at 8:00 p.m. beginning April 9, explores these breakthroughs through the eyes of three animala: birds, dogs, and dolphins.

Bird Genius

Today researchers are discovering other creatures with impressive brains that have mastered problem-solving skills. Surprisingly, many are bird brains. Crows bend and shape sticks to create custom-made spears for hunting grubs, and they are just one among a growing list of bird species whose impressive problem-solving abilities are shocking scientists and revolutionizing our understanding of animal intelligence.

At the head of the class are animals like Muppet, a cockatoo with a talent for picking locks; 007, a wild crow on a mission to solve an eight-step puzzle for the first time ever; and Bran, a tame raven who can solve a puzzle box so quickly that his performance has to be captured with high-speed photography. But are these skills really evidence of high intelligence, or just parlor tricks, the result of training and instinct?

 

Dogs and Super Senses

What is it like to be a dog, a shark, or a bird? This question is now getting serious attention from scientists who study animal senses. The senses define our experience of the world—they shape our minds, and help make us what we are. Humans rely on smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound, but other animals have super-powered versions of these senses, and a few, like electrically-sensitive sharks, even have extra senses we don’t have at all.

From a dog that seems to use smell to tell time, to a dolphin that can "see" with his ears, NOVA discovers how animals use their senses in ways we humans can barely imagine. But it’s not just the senses that are remarkable—it's the brains that process them. How does a dog’s mind turn the sight of a hand signal into the happy anticipation of a treat? How has the evolution of the dog—from its wolf ancestors–reshaped its brain?

 

Who’s the Smartest?

What makes an animal smart? What forces of evolution drive brains to become more complex? Many scientists believe the secret lies in our relationships. Throughout the animal kingdom, some of the cleverest creatures seem to be those who live in complex social groups, like dolphins, elephants, and apes. Could the skills required to keep track of friend and foe make animals smarter? To find out, NOVA goes inside the social lives of some of the smartest animals on the planet. Off the coast of Florida, NOVA finds dolphins working together to catch fish by whipping up a wall of muddy water that drives the meal right into their companions’ waiting mouths. Biologists decipher the secrets of animal societies, from the seas of the Caribbean to the plains of Africa. Do dolphins and elephants have “language?" Do chimps have a sense of fairness? And are any animals besides humans capable of feeling empathy?

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