Parrots, Dolphins, Seals – And What They Have Taught Us

  • László Erdős


Parrots can imitate human speech but Irene Pepperberg decided to prove that they can be taught to talk meaningfully. Her African grey parrot named Alex learned over a hundred English words and was able to answer questions and make requests. He could communicate about the colour, shape, material, and size of several objects and understood the concept of sameness and difference as well as the concept of ‘none.’ Alex had some mathematical knowledge: he could count to 6 and add up small numbers. Alex and Pepperberg showed us how intelligent birds are. At the Marine Mammal Laboratory in Hawaii, the bottle-nosed dolphins Akeakamai and Phoenix learned an artificial language consisting of gestures and sounds. They were able to understand individual signals that were equivalent to words. Moreover, they could comprehend combinations of signals that were arranged according to simple grammatical rules; these combinations can be seen as equivalent to sentences. Remarkable mental abilities have also been demonstrated by sea lions, including Rio and Rocky, who learned the meanings of gestural signs and even combinations of signs, were able to classify objects into abstract categories, and could repeatedly outperform human volunteers in intelligence tests. Through all these researches, the illusion of human uniqueness has been refuted once and for all.


Alex (parrot) Akeakamai (dolphin) Phoenix (dolphin) Rio (sea lion) Rocky (sea lion) Irene Pepperberg 

Worth Reading

  1. Pepperberg, I. M. (2009). Alex & me. New York: Harper.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Worth Browsing

Worth Watching

  1. Life with Alex: A memoir (2011)Google Scholar
  2. Dolphins: Deep thinkers? (2003)Google Scholar
  3. Extraordinary animals – The smartest sea lion (2007)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • László Erdős
    • 1
  1. 1.MTA-DE Lendület Functional and Restoration Ecology Research Group, DebrecenInstitute of Ecology and Botany MTA Centre for Ecological ResearchVácrátótHungary

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