Interview with Chris Packham on 'Chris Packham’s Animal Einsteins'

Life in the natural world is undoubtedly tough. Animals need to find food, create a safe home, attract a mate, raise a family and the most important of all - avoid being eaten

"What’s the most unusual skill or technique I saw the animals on this series displaying? I think I’d go for the Mourning Cuttlefish; they make half of their body look like a female and then they can sneak past another male, it’s just unbelievably cheeky" — Chris Packham

On Sunday - BBC Two at 8pm



But it’s not only the physically fit that survive and thrive: problem solving, cunning trickery and the ability to co-operate with others can give some animals the upper hand.

In Chris Packham’s Animal Einsteins viewers will meet nature’s savviest species who show that brainpower, ingenuity and clever tactics are just as important as brawn in the daily battle for survival.

With the help of experts, experiments and the very latest science, Chris Packham shines a light upon some of the smartest creatures and explores what has led them to develop such talents.

Each 60-minute episode explores a very different skill, and showcases the animals that have honed that skill to perfection.

Can you tell us what viewers can expect from Animal Einsteins?

I think there’s going to be a lot of surprises for people, is the first thing. There are quite a lot of wow moments, there are stories here which are going to stop people in their tracks and get them to completely rethink the way that they probably consider other animals’ intelligence. And I think the reason for that is that there’s a lot of good new science.

One of the key things here is that there are a few stories that we’ve touched on before and that we’ve updated, but nevertheless there’s a generous dose of up-to-date science. Given the advances in technology that we have, this has led our scientists to have a wide range of access to understand species' behaviour. It's really simple things sometimes, like the type of monitoring equipment we have, and this allows them to analyse the animals in a way that we haven’t been previously able to do. While we previously have had suspicions, we are now able to prove those using the contemporary technology.

There are plenty of things there that will engage people because they’ll be familiar with the animals. Of course, not everyone’s met a Mantis Shrimp but most people do meet ants and domestic dogs and so on and so forth, and they play quite a significant role, so a lot of known species but with some unknown knew science brought to the fore which is great.

What attracted you to this series?

Selfishly speaking, I’m very fortunate in that my life is an ongoing learning experiment and I enjoy learning new things about animals, plants, life. Sometimes people imagine it’s because you get to travel places - not at the moment obviously - or you get to meet the animals - not so much at the moment obviously. But really it’s not, its meeting people who know more about them than I do. Because we’re working closely with them, but with a focused objective, they effectively just tell me everything they know about that species and that topic. It’s like an ongoing rolling series of lectures.

Part of the challenge of this series was to say to people, and we do repeatedly stress this, is that you cannot use the same parameters that we use to measure our own intelligence. They are just not applicable. The most significant example of that is perhaps the self-awareness with dogs using smell rather than sight, because a lot of people will know - because they have dogs - that they are relatively speaking an intelligent animal, but they don’t have what we have.

We’ve previously never thought they had a sense of self, in the sense that they know each other and other dogs as individuals. I’ve always had suspicions because this is such a long-lived social animal, but there’s an experiment done in the series which involves moving a dogs urine around its range, which seemed to show they do have a sense of self. So there’s quite a lot of human ingenuity in it as well when it comes to the experiments and the science which is nice. So all of those things - I think it’s good to get an update, I’m always curious, I love learning new things and I like human ingenuity when it comes to simple experiments.

What was the most unusual skill or technique that you saw the animals on this series displaying?

I think I’d go for the cuttlefish, the Mourning Cuttlefish. They make half of their body look like a female so they can sneak past another male and it is just unbelievably cheeky. I mean, we all like a con artist, I think we all like the idea of tricks, we are drawn to card tricks and magicians - and magicians have been going for thousands of years and we still watch them now - but when you look at that cuttlefish, looking half like a female so it can sneak in, and the male thinks “oh this is a bonus I’ve got two females” - but the minute it's under there, the male side attracts the female and they get to mate, and it’s so sneaky and so brilliant that they have the capacity to change their colouration to mimic the opposite sex, for me that was just joyous, absolutely joyous.

Which animal do you think is the most intelligent animal that you encountered on the series?

Well clearly it was all the scientists that were doing the experiments, but if we take out the humans, the ones I actually met would be the raven that we had. Because the raven was presented with a challenge that it hadn’t seen before. The first time it did it, it took about a minute and 15 seconds and then the second time it did it - which I think was the take that we used in the series - it did it in about 45 seconds. But what we didn’t show in the episode was that once the raven had figured out, it just kept doing it again and again and again, because it was getting the reward. And in the end it was doing it in about 15 seconds, after about four goes. So it's not only that it had the capacity to solve the problem initially, it also has the capacity to hone its problem-solving ability so it could do it more effectively, and to see that in real time, every time it did the test it sort of halved the amount of time that it took, was just amazing.

I like ravens very much. Bran the raven, I’ve known that raven for quite a few years now, it belongs to a couple of friends of us all. So to see Bran in action, I mean it had already demolished the intelligence of My Former Poodles actually, on another series that we made, so we brought him back into play and once again he demonstrated these remarkable problem-solving ability.

Do you think Animal Einsteins will change people’s perceptions about animal intelligence?

I certainly hope so, and the first thing that has got to change is that we can't use what we think of as intelligence to measure intelligence in other species, because basically they don't need our sort of intelligence. Those attributes which can be enormously beneficial to us would not benefit the vast majority of other animals.

However, developing their own forms of intelligence is something which they have clearly done, but we have just never measured in a way in which we would therefore call them intelligent. With the little Cleaner Wrasse, we have a tiny fish which clearly knows itself and will therefore will know other wrasse as individuals.

So another thing we are able to expose is that we drastically underestimated the intelligence of so many other animals up until this point, because we haven’t been able to test them properly. But now, given our capacity to test them with new technologies, we are opening up a goldmine of new animal intelligence and I think people will find that exciting.

What can humans learn from the ingenuity of animals?

Well, I think one of the things we see in the Builders episode, where we look at biomimicry, which is where humans have essentially copied animal engineering. So when we look at bees, they want to create the maximum beneficial structure in terms of strength, durability and purpose. But they want to do it in the quickest amount of time using the minimum amount of material. Because for them, time and material are incredibly important resources, they don’t have the luxury of being able to sit around pontificating about how they’re going to do something because they’re constantly on the knife edge of survival. So for them it’s an absolute must.

What we see with animal construction is a purity of form that’s driven by the need to absolutely maximise and optimise their capabilities in term of design, as it were. And so, when we copy from those - honeycomb, all sorts of other things - and there’s an enormous benefit to us, because we are able to mimic those advantages that they have.

So I think that’s a key thing, that we do learn from other animals and we’ve always done that I think, we’ve been doing it for a long time, but now we have the ability to measure that so much more precisely. I mean, we talk about beaver dams in the way that they are shaped so that the water pressure holds the dam onto the substrate beneath it. And obviously we build our dams in the same way. In engineering terms it makes sense, otherwise they’ll fall down and everything gets flooded, so I think biomimicry is key, I think a lot of people will take that away from the series as well.

What are some of the new scientific discoveries that have come out of the series?

We’ve got the bees that can count, obviously. That’s been done at Queen Mary, University of London. And we go on to show them playing football, which is a bit of gag. But the key thing is that these animals can count.

Pllanning ahead is another thing that we’ve looked at in these programmes. The cuttlefish again, they plan for the future. So they choose to have a lighter lunch if they know that there’s a chance that they could get a bigger dinner. So that ability to predict the future is again a tremendous sign of intelligence, because currently we don’t know of too many species that can do that. We know that birds do it when they store some of their food, they’re cacheing it, they will eat the more perishable items first because they know that they will go off, effectively. But now switching from a vertebrate bird to an invertebrate cuttlefish, and we know that they are doing the same thing, they’re making a decision about when they eat based on what they think they can eat later, which is quite something really. And then we’ve got the little fish, the Cleaner Wrasse, which is passing the mirror test, which is incredible. That’s the thing, every programme has lots of new science which is really good.

Can you tell us about the apes that use the gestures humans can understand?

Oh it’s amazing. I mean when I do the test I recognise the gestures. That’s the key thing. So they put together the programme whereby they have the apes gesturing to one another, and then they have a cartoon of it. And you see it once in slow motion and you look at the drawing and you have to, as a human, try to interpret what the apes mean with that gesture. And we score really highly, because obviously their gestures are pretty similar to those that we use. And when you see them being used in that context they’re easy for us to understand. So again, it’s not only that they’re using gestures, which is phenomenal, it’s also that those gestures cross the species barrier.

What was it like to meet the animals on the series? Were there any that you had a particular affinity with or affection towards?

Aesthetically we met some great things, the Poison Arrow Frog are exquisitely beautiful. There aren’t many animals as beautiful as a Poison Arrow Frog. They’re so delicate and yet the colours are so intense and they’re remarkable. So I liked looking at the Poison Arrow Frogs, that was great. The raven I’ve already mentioned was fantastic. I got to ride a couple of camels, Bactrians, and I like camels. I like the smell of camels, we had very posh camels, they came bathed and washed, but they still smelt of camel, but no they smell good, I quite like that, because it’s unique to that animal. It’s a distinct smell. So I always enjoy meeting those animals. But yeah, the Poison Arrow Frog was pretty spectacular I’ve got to say.

Do you have a particular highlights from filming the series?

For me it’s finding out those new things. It’s just being simply astonished by things that you just think couldn’t possibly happen. I like trying to imagine how animals perceive the world, because we think about our eyesight, but we also did a thing about animals that see in polarised light. You just can’t imagine it, it’s beyond our comprehension. I like being challenged by things like that which are beyond our comprehension. I can put on polarised sunglasses, but that’s not what they see, they don’t see that. That’s a means of us explaining what polarised light it about. So that was really good, I like those sorts of things.

I like animals that are also better at doing things than we are. So the chimpanzees, you show them something for a fraction of a second and then in a fraction of a space of time their short-term memory is so strong that they’re able to relocate all the things that you’ve just shown them. And even things like budgies, everyone thinks of them as a little caged bird that your grandmother used to keep, but new science there has shown that the females will chose the brighter males, the more intelligent males, so there’s lots going on that we don’t know.

In summary, what do you believe makes an animal ‘intelligent’?

Well I think animals have to manifest their own intelligence. Ultimately in order for them to survive, which so many of them do if we don’t interfere with them, they manifest a form of intelligence which is essential to them, otherwise they would fail to survive.

Source BBC TWO

February 16, 2021 10:03am ET by BBC TWO  


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