NOVA - Inside Animal Minds


Updated Fri, Mar 28, 2014 10:58 am

Wednesdays, April 9-23 • 9 p.m.

What would it be like to go inside the mind of an animal? We have all gazed into a creature’s eyes and wondered: What is it thinking about? What does it really know? Now, the revolutionary science of animal cognition is revealing hard evidence about how animals understand the world around them, uncovering their remarkable problem-solving abilities and exploring the complexity of their powers of communication and even their emotions. NOVA explores these breakthroughs through three iconic creatures—dogs, birds and dolphins. “Inside Animal Minds” premieres on consecutive Wednesday nights on April 9, 16 and 23 at 9 p.m.

In “Inside Animal Minds,” NOVA checks in with researchers around the globe who are pushing the animal mind to its limits to help us uncover surprising similarities to—and differences from—the human mind. Viewers will travel into the spectacularly nuanced noses of dogs and wolves, and discover whether their reliance on different senses has shaped their evolution. The program will see through the eyes of a starling in flight and test the tool-using skills of what some consider the smartest of birds, the crow. NOVA will listen in as scientists track dolphins in the Caribbean and elephants on the African savannah, trying to unlock the secrets of animal communication. “Inside Animal Minds” explores just how smart animals can be and asks: Is their behavior innate—or do some have the ability to reason? How do they do it? Is it the size of their brains? Or the way they live?

“For centuries, we’ve had a tendency to dismiss animals as creatures without a real understanding of what they were doing, and an assumption that only we humans had the ability to create tools, understand cause and effect and imagine what the future could be like," said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer for NOVA. “The truth unveiled in 'Inside Animal Minds' is that animals minds are far more complicated. NOVA provides fascinating insight into the minds of some of the smartest animals on the planet, their ability to solve problems and how evolutionary forces may have shaped their brains and behavior.”
 

“Bird Genius” (April 9 at 9 p.m.)

When it comes to intelligence, we humans are clearly the most gifted animals around. But what makes us so special? Is it our ability to make and use tools? To solve complex problems? Or plan for the future? It might seem that way, but today, researchers are discovering other creatures with impressive brains that have mastered all those skills. Surprisingly, many are bird brains. Crows bend and shape sticks to create custom-made spears for hunting grubs, and they are just one among a growing list of bird species whose impressive problem-solving abilities are shocking scientists and revolutionizing our understanding of animal intelligence. “Inside Animal Minds” introduces animals at the head of the class—like "Muppet," a cockatoo with a talent for picking locks, and "007," a wild crow on a mission to solve an eight-step puzzle for the first time ever. Viewers will also meet animal handler Lloyd Buck and his tame raven, Bran, who can solve a puzzle box so quickly that his performance has to be captured with high-speed photography. But are these skills really evidence of high intelligence, or just parlor tricks, the result of training and instinct? To find out, NOVA tests the limits of some of the planet’s brainiest animals, searching for the secrets of a problem-solving mind.

“Dogs & Super Senses” (April 16 at 9 p.m.)

What is it like to be a dog, a shark or a bird? Long the subject of human daydreams, this question is now getting serious attention from scientists who study animal senses. The senses define our experience of the world—they shape our minds, and help make us what we are. Humans rely on smell, sight, taste, touch and sound, but other animals have super-powered versions of these senses. A few animals, like electrically-sensitive sharks, even have extra senses we don’t have at all. From a dog who seems to use smell to tell time, to a dolphin who can “see” with his ears, viewers will discover how animals use their senses in ways we humans can barely imagine. NOVA meets with researcher Kathryn Lord from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst/Gettysburg College, who has reared a group of wolves from birth to see how they interpret visual information and how it contrasts with dogs. She discovers that the process of domestication on dogs may have given dogs greater flexibility to rely on all of their senses, while wolves are evolutionarily hardwired to use their sense of smell above all other senses. But it’s not just the senses that are remarkable—it’s the brains that process them. How does a swallow’s tiny, one-gram brain take in the flood of visual information that enables the bird to whiz within inches of buildings while flying at 40 miles an hour? Is it possible for a dog to smell time? How has the evolution of the dog—from its wolf ancestors—reshaped its brain? NOVA goes into the minds of animals to “see” the world in an entirely new way.

“Who’s The Smartest?” (April 23 at 9 p.m.)

What makes an animal smart? What forces of evolution drive brains to become more complex? Many scientists believe the secret lies in our relationships. Throughout the animal kingdom, some of the cleverest creatures—including humans—seem to be those who live in complex social groups, like dolphins, elephants and apes. Could the skills required to keep track of friend and foe make animals smarter? To find out, NOVA goes inside the social lives of some of the smartest animals on the planet. Off the coast of Florida, viewers will see dolphins team up to catch fish by whipping up a wall of muddy water that drives the meal right into their companions’ waiting mouths. It seems that the dolphins are working together to plan their hunt. But are they really? Biologists go on a quest to decipher the secrets of animal societies, from the seas of the Caribbean to the plains of Africa. Do dolphins and elephants have “language”? Do chimps have a sense of fairness? And are any animals other than humans capable of feeling empathy? NOVA meets with Dr. Diana Reiss, animal psychologist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD, who investigates whether dolphins have a sense of self and can recognize themselves as individuals.