Natural history books that look inside the minds of animals – New Scientist

What's it like to be a dog?

If I could only see what you’re thinking

Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic/Getty

It’s one of humanity’s oldest questions – the hunter, the herder and the harried modern pet owner have all at some point gazed at an animal and (with rather diverse intentions) mused “I wonder what he’s thinking?” and “Do they see the world like we do?”

Many books this year have either touched on, embraced or dived fully into the topic. One of the more intriguing is Danna Staaf’s Squid Empire: The rise and fall of the cephalopods (University Press of New England). It tells the 400-million-year story of a group that once comprised the planet’s top carnivores, to say nothing of lineages that diversified into scavengers, grazers and even filter feeders.

Take a water jet-propulsion system, a brain with mammal-grade thinking skills, and optically excellent eyes. Add tentacles and an ability to communicate using colour via direct nerve-control of skin patches, and as Staaf makes plain, you have a smart and dexterous group of animals that, if not for a couple of evolutionary cataclysms, would probably be running the planet right now. This in-depth coverage of an often neglected but ecologically vital group will change your view of squid, octopuses and their relatives, and make eating calamari feel like cannibalism.


In contrast to the dynamics of Staaf’s squid, Juli Berwald’s Spineless (Riverhead Books) takes us into the, at first glance, rather more passive world of jellyfish. These creatures seem an exercise in evolutionary minimalism, with just two layers of cells – the eponymous jelly and some simple bands of muscle – combining to produce elegant propulsion mechanisms. They have no central brain, yet they see and sense, and have been astonishingly successful for more than 500 million years.

Berwald’s exposé of the biology beneath the curved and tentacled dome is combined with a personal odyssey as, after a decade of mothering, she returns to marine science to study jellyfish swarms in the ecologically askew regions of the world’s oceans.

Different thinking

A very different approach is taken by Deep Thinkers: Inside the minds of whales, dolphins, and porpoises (University of Chicago Press). Edited by marine biologist Janet Mann, the experts in this volume explore the whys and wherefores of cetacean thinking. There are chapters on cognition, tool use and communication, analyses of cetacean social lives, and anatomical studies. In keeping technical language to a minimum and matching the clearly written text to beautiful illustrations and clear and concise diagrams, Mann and her collaborators have produced an evocative summary of what it is to be whale.

Thinking deeply

Thinking deeply

Copyright Bryant Austin; from Deep Thinkers (Ivy Press, 2017)

The first chapter of Deep Thinkers shows just how hard it is to study even very large mammals in a place as huge and complex as the ocean. So working on dog intelligence should be a walk in the park. After all, graves containing dogs alongside humans date back 14,000 years, and dogs were probably helping with the mammoth hunt much earlier than that.

Yet neuroscientist Gregory Berns’s What It’s Like to be a Dog, and other adventures in animal neuroscience (Basic Books) reveals that our understanding of why dogs behave the way they do is far less intuitive than we might imagine. We may be able to predict their responses pretty well, pretty often, but the reasons we ascribe to their actions are very much based on our interpretations of how things work.

For a dog’s-eye and nose perspective, we need to get inside their heads – and this is where MRI and the author’s special expertise come in. Berns mixes personal stories of dogs and dog lovers with elegant scientific experiments that show the surprising complexity behind many canine daily behaviours: a fun, fascinating and illuminating read.

True personalities

Every pet lover knows that animals are highly individualistic in their likes, dislikes and general being. Farmers and zookeepers say the same of the animals in their care. But, somehow, it was always assumed that this was an artefact of captivity. Safe and well-fed, such animals could, like a pampered aristocrat, indulge in behavioural whims and eccentricities.

Well before the third chapter of Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes: The science of animal personalities (Beacon Press), wildlife biologist John Shivik will have convinced you otherwise. Elephants mourn their lost loved ones and suffer post-traumatic stress after poaching, bonobos read emotional situations and resolve conflicts, marmosets exhibit grief: with this level of emotional sophistication, why wouldn’t they show personalities too? And the examples roll in, from all branches of the zoological family tree – brave chickens, innovative otters, left-handed wallabies…

When scientists studying behaviour considered animals to be little more than stimulus-bound and instinct-wired robots, to be accused of anthropomorphism was a social calamity. Now “smart”, “cowardly”, “exuberant” and “shy” are considered descriptive epithets connoting a researcher’s empathy, dedication and field-won insight, rather than lab-coat-shaming emotional overspill.

In a text that mixes the history of behavioural science with Shivik’s own field experience and that of many others, personality soon comes to be seen as an unsurprising consequence of adaptive variability. As cryptic animals vary in their colour patterns, so smart ones vary in the ways they deal with situations. It is a credit to the quality of the author’s writing that, long after the point has been made, you are more than happy to turn the page for his next example of glorious animal individualism and eccentricity.

More on these topics:


Write a Reply or Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.