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It’s not just primates that demonstrate surprising abilities.

Dolphins, whose brains are 25 percent heavier than humans, recognize themselves in a mirror. So do elephants. A study in June finds that black bears can do primitive counting, something even pigeons have done, by putting two dots before five, or 10 before 20 in one experiment.

The trend in research is to identify some new thinking skill that chimps can do, revealing that certain abilities are “not uniquely human,” said Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal. Then the scientists find that same ability in other primates further removed from humans genetically. Then they see it in dogs and elephants.

“Capacities that we think in humans are very special and complex are probably not so special and not so complex,” de Waal said. “This research in animals elevates the animals, but it also brings down the humans…. If monkeys can do it and maybe dogs and other animals, maybe it’s not as complex as you think.”

At Duke, professor Elizabeth Brannon shows videos of monkeys that appear to be doing a “fuzzy representation” of multiplication by following the number of dots that go into a box on a computer screen and choosing the right answer to come out of the box. This is after they’ve already done addition and subtraction.

This spring in France, researchers showed that six baboons could distinguish between fake and real four-letter words _ BRRU vs KITE, for example. And they chose to do these computer-based exercises of their own free will, either for fun or a snack.

It was once thought the control of emotions and the ability to empathize and socialize separated us from our primate cousins. But chimps console, and fight, each other. They also try to soothe an upset companion, grooming and putting their arms around him.

“I see plenty of empathy in my chimpanzees,” de Waal said. But studies have shown they also go to war against neighboring colonies, killing the males and taking the females. That’s something that also is very human and led people to believe that war-making must go back in our lineage 6 million years, de Waal said.

When scientists look at our other closest relative, the bonobo, they see a difference. Bonobos don’t kill. Hare says his experiments show bonobos give food to newcomer bonobos, even when they could choose to keep all the food themselves.

One reason scientists are learning more about animal intellect is computers, including touch screens. In some cases, scientists are setting up banks of computers available to primates 24-7. In the French word recognition experiment, Fagot found he got more and better data when it was the baboons’ choice to work.

Animal cognition researcher Steve Ross at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago agrees.

“The apes in our case seem to be working better when they have that control, that choice to perform,” he said.

Brain scans on monkeys and apes also have helped correct mistaken views about ape brain power. It was once thought the prefrontal cortex, the area in charge of higher reasoning, was disproportionately larger than the rest of the brain only in humans, giving us a cognitive advantage, Hare said. But imaging shows that monkey and ape prefrontal cortexes have that same larger scale, he said.

What’s different is that the human communication system in the prefrontal cortex is more complex, Hare said.

So there are limits to what non-human primates can do. Animals don’t have the ability to communicate with the complexity of human language. In the French study, the baboons can recognize that the letters KITE make a word because through trial and error they learn which letters tend to go together in what order. But the baboons don’t have a clue of what KITE means. It’s that gap that’s key. “The boundaries are not as sharp as people think, but there are certain things you can’t overcome and language is one of them,” said Columbia University animal cognition researcher Herbert Terrace.

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