Friday, November 27, 2009

Canadian Geese Migration: animal intelligence without need of a GPS

I was watching a charming movie on cable today, one I had seen when it first came out in the theaters some years back: Fly Away Home. It's a father-daughter drama that incorporates some of the interesting studies that have been done in training orphaned Canadian Geese to learn their migratory routes. Ultralight airplanes have been used to teach the geese to follow the plane and memorize the long route from Canada to the Carolina wetlands in the U.S.

What's particularly interesting is the intelligence these birds are able to display, actually learning the visual landmarks over a 2000 mile route so that they can return again and again. Do you think you could memorize aerial landmarks in one pass over a 2000 mile stretch? And yet this is a bird with a brain the size of a small grape! (See movie trailer.)

Just another example of amazing animal intelligence and the importance for man to understand animal smarts on its own terms - not to judge or compare it to human intelligence. Animals have evolved intelligence supported by senses that relate to feeding, breeding, and basic survival. From that some social interactions and relationships develop but, again, we must be careful not to ascribe human characteristics to it. It's a different animal, literally.

I have seen this misplaced humanizing with other "wild animals." Take sharks, for instance. These are animals with a wide aware of astounding sensory capabilities but with a relatively small brain (a rather fragmented or un-centralized brain actually, when compared to other land animals). In the presence of humans (ie: divers), sharks can demonstrate behaviors that we might regard as human-like interactions or relationships. That can be a mistake.

It is important that we appreciate animals for what they are and how they evolved; different from us, the end result of their successful evolution within their environment, and often superior to us in many ways within that environment.

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