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The Other News Round-Up: Something bugging you?

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the world’s stranger things. This week: the brains of insects and other creatures.

Many moons ago – when I was still a youngster climbing out of classroom windows to nab mulberries off a conveniently placed tree when trigonometry became too taxing – I read a column by Dave Barry on insect intelligence. It must been profoundly disturbing, because decades later, the content remains seared into my brain. Apparently, Barry received news via a wire report that bees could locate feeders by counting the landmarks. Bees, it turns out, can count. Which means they probably would have done better than me at trigonometry.

Further, the column pointed out, cockroaches can learn to run a maze in under half an hour with their heads removed.

Now, you can choose to look at this optimistically and say okay, well, obviously this doesn’t say much for the use of a cockroach’s brain. Or you can look at it my way and say: sweet holy mother of all that is wonderful, we are going to die at the hands of these leggy bastards, and we would never have seen it coming.

Never mind the well-known fact that cockroaches can survive nuclear warfare. This takes it to a whole new level. They can declare nuclear warfare if they want to. They can strategise the whole damn thing and memorise an ingenious tunnel system to navigate their allies out safely. If Donald Trump had his head screwed on right, he wouldn’t be wasting his time looking for trouble with Iran. He’d just walk into the nearest kitchen with a bucket of crumbs and start making nice.

To make matters worse, the journal Current Biology recently reported that mosquitoes are getting smarter. Apparently, these blood-sucking beasts are evolving to recognise the odour of people who whack them, learning to stay away. At the same time a generation of headless, maze-navigating nuclear survivors are breeding inside your home, tiny bloodsucking vampires are working for immortality just outside it.

It’s over, guys. Start editing your bucket list. The invertebrates you’ve merrily been swatting away from your head are probably there on a reconnaissance mission.

Seriously, though. Since Barry published that column in 19-voetsek, entomologists have done a great deal more research. According to scientists at Queen Mary, University of London and Cambridge University, consciousness can be generated in neural circuits tiny enough to fit into an insect’s brain. And, although to date intelligence has been associated with the size of an animal’s brain, counting ability could be achieved with just a few hundred nerve cells.

“Animals with bigger brains are not necessarily more intelligent,” Professor Lars Chittka, from Queen Mary’s Research Centre for Psychology, wrote in Current Biology.

“We know that body size is the single best way to predict an animal’s brain size. However, contrary to popular belief, we can’t say that brain size predicts their capacity for intelligent behaviour.

“In bigger brains we often don’t find more complexity, just an endless repetition of the same neural circuits over and over. This might add detail to remembered images or sounds, but not add any degree of complexity. To use a computer analogy, bigger brains might in many cases be bigger hard drives, not necessarily better processors.”

This has implications for the way in which we understand not only insect intelligence, but animal intelligence overall. Antoine Wystrach wrote in Scientific American that “we’ve been looking at ant intelligence the wrong way”; i.e. starting with what we believe about human intelligence.

“It seems intuitive to start with our own assumptions about human intelligence, and design experiments that ask whether animals possess similar anthropomorphic abilities. Do animals have a language, or a personality? Do they feel empathy or achieve abstract reasoning? This approach does suit the study of animals closely related to us, like apes. But is it relevant when studying animals such as insects?”

Not so much, he argues. Their navigational abilities, for example, are based on sophisticated mechanisms, though a far cry from human mechanisms. We know, also, that ants have a kind of collective intelligence rather than working particularly well individually. (“The behaviour of hundreds of scout ants circling their nests on a hunt for sustenance can be chaotic as it looks, like drunks stumbling about the house in search of their keys,” writes Bryan Walsh in Time.)

Ants also develop their abilities over time, much like we learn. Scientist Jurgen Kurths of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research believes a colony of ants, together, has the capacity to process information in a manner more effective than a search engine. (Which doesn’t bode well for us if they strike a deal with a band of angry cockroaches. Just saying.)

“I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that, is more accurate and complex than a Google search. These insects are, without doubt, more efficient than Google in processing information about their surroundings,” said Kurths.

As Wystrach and Chittka point out, humans, overall, often underestimate animal intelligence. Irene Pepperberg, famed for her work on avian intelligence with the parrot Alex, appeared in the Harvard Gazette for a further experiment with Griffin the African Grey. Griffin outperformed human toddlers on tests to recognise liquid volume.

“The classic Piagetian test works like this: Show a child two identical glasses of juice and ask which he or she wants. The child will giggle and say the amounts are the same. Then pour the juice into separate containers — one tall and thin, the other short and squat — and again ask the child to choose. Until about age 6, children typically choose the taller container, believing it now holds more. Griffin, by comparison, wasn’t thrown — and was even smart enough to see through subsequent tests designed to fool him — in experiments conducted by Irene Pepperberg, a research associate in Harvard’s Psychology Department, and Francesca Cornero ’19,” the Gazette reported.

Pepperberg’s experiments correlate with Chittka’s findings that larger brains do not necessarily mean more complex brains. The bird brain, my friends, is a thing of the past.

And the key issue is perhaps identified by Wystrach – in how we define intelligence and learning. Griffin the parrot’s ability to judge liquid volume, for example, is likely an evolutionary mechanism, helping birds judge nutritional value accurately. Ants’ navigational abilities, similarly, are adapted to their needs for survival.

Does it change that they have it? Matter of opinion. DM

Read more:

Ants and collective intelligence


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