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And that leads to another difference, Ross said. Because apes lack language skills, they learn by watching and mimicking. Humans teach with language and explanation, which is faster and better, Ross said.

Some of the shifts in scientific understanding of animals are leading to ethical debates. When Emory University researcher Lori Marino in 2001 co-wrote a groundbreaking study on dolphins recognizing themselves in mirrors, proving they have a sense of self similar to humans, she had a revelation.

“The more you learn about them, the more you realize that they do have the capacity and characteristics that we think of as a person,” Marino said. “I think it’s impossible to ignore the ethical implications of these kinds of findings.”

After the two dolphins she studied died when transferred to another aquarium, she decided never to work on captive dolphins again. She then became a science adviser to the Nonhuman Rights Project, which seeks legal rights or status for animals. The idea, Marino said, is to get animals such as dolphins “to be deemed a person, not property.”

The intelligence of primates was one of the factors behind a report last year by the Institute of Medicine that said the National Institutes of Health should reduce dramatically the number of chimpanzees it uses in biomedical research.

The NIH is working on new guidelines that would further limit federal medical chimpanzee use down from its current few dozen chimps at any given time, said NIH program planning chief James Anderson. Chimps are a special case, with their use “very, very limited,” he said. But he raises the question: “What happens if your child is sick or your mother is dying” and animal research might lead to a cure?

The issue is more about animal welfare and giving them the right “not to be killed, not to be tortured, not to be confined unnecessarily” than giving them legal standing, said David DeGrazia, a philosophy and ethics professor at George Washington University.

Hare says that focusing on animal rights ignores the problem of treatment of chimps in research settings. He contends that for behavioral studies and even for many medical research tests they could be kept in zoos or sanctuaries rather than labs.

Animals performing tasks in near-natural habitats “is like an Ivy League college” for the apes, Hare said. “We’re going to see them do stunning and sophisticated things.”

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Online:

Videos of monkeys doing primitive math by the Brannon Lab at Duke University:

http://vimeo.com/42208149

Pit yourself against the Japanese chimp Ayumu in a memory test:

http://games.lumosity.com/chimp.html

Story Continues →