Space & Innovation

Animals Are as With It as Humans, Scientists Say

A prominent group of scientists signs a document stating that animals are just as conscious and aware as humans are. This is a big deal.

THE GIST

- An international group of prominent scientists supports the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are.

- The list includes all mammals, birds and even some encephlopods.

- The group says consciousness can emerge even in those animals that are very much unlike humans.

An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are -- a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus. But will this make us stop treating these animals in totally inhumane ways?

While it might not sound like much for scientists to declare that many nonhuman animals possess conscious states, it's the open acknowledgement that's the big news here. The body of scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are, and it's no longer something we can ignore.

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What's also very interesting about the declaration is the group's acknowledgement that consciousness can emerge in those animals that are very much unlike humans, including those that evolved along different evolutionary tracks, namely birds and some encephalopods.

"The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states," they write. "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors."

Consequently, say the signatories, the scientific evidence is increasingly indicating that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.

The group consists of cognitive scientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists -- all of whom were attending the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals. The declaration was signed in the presence of Stephen Hawking, and included such signatories as Christof Koch, David Edelman, Edward Boyden, Philip Low, Irene Pepperberg, and many more.

The declaration made the following observations:

- The field of Consciousness research is rapidly evolving. Abundant new techniques and strategies for human and non-human animal research have been developed. Consequently, more data is becoming readily available, and this calls for a periodic reevaluation of previously held preconceptions in this field. Studies of non-human animals have shown that homologous brain circuits correlated with conscious experience and perception can be selectively facilitated and disrupted to assess whether they are in fact necessary for those experiences. Moreover, in humans, new non-invasive techniques are readily available to survey the correlates of consciousness.

- The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states. Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and nonhuman animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions.

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Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus).

- Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated in zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex. Magpies in articular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition.

- In humans, the effect of certain hallucinogens appears to be associated with a disruption in cortical feedforward and feedback processing. Pharmacological interventions in non-human animals with compounds known to affect conscious behavior in humans can lead to similar perturbations in behavior in non-human animals. In humans, there is evidence to suggest that awareness is correlated with cortical activity, which does not exclude possible contributions by subcortical or early cortical processing, as in visual awareness. Evidence that human and nonhuman animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks provide compelling evidence for evolutionarily shared primal affective qualia.

Read more about this here and here.

This story originally appeared on io9.com.

The list of animals that are regarded as being as with it as humans includes all mammals, birds and even encephlopods.

Tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombings remind us how important first responders are. Animals come to the rescue of members of their own species too.

Dolphins, for example, form "living rafts" to keep ill or injured dolphins buoyant, according to a paper published in Marine Mammal Science. Up to 12 dolphins, working together in a pod, may swim together to try and keep one of their own afloat.

Meerkats have one of the animal kingdom's most efficient security operations. A sentinel stands guard, watching for any potential threats. Should an intruder approach, an entire clan -- from elderly grandmas to younger dads -- mob the unwelcome visitor.

"Non-dangerous terrestrial animals most often ran away when they were approached and mobbed by the meerkats," explained Beke Graw and Marta Manser of the University of Zurich. More threatening animals, such as poisonous snakes, were also mobbed, but the meerkats often had to back down and leave, knowing they might be safer doing so.

Risking their own lives, vervet monkeys make loud alarm calls when they spot a predator, saving others from harm. According to Robert Seyfarth of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues, the monkeys even identify, the specific type of predator in the loud calls.

"Animals on the ground respond to leopard alarms by running into trees, to eagle alarms by looking up, and to snake alarms by looking down," the researchers explained.

American bison are formidable animals, both in terms of size and weight, so they are usually only taken down by large predators, such as mountain lions, wolves and humans. According to Animal Diversity Web, bison travel in lines led by dominant adults. If they detect a predator, a meaningful bison-emitted grunt or snort tells the herd to be wary. Mother bison, as for many animal moms, will also fight to the death to save their young.

Male wild chimpanzees living in Bossou, Guinea, have figured out how to deactivate, and sometimes even destroy, snares set out by human hunters, according to Gaku Ohashi of the Japan Monkey Center and colleagues. The researchers documented instances where the chimps set free trapped individuals and took steps to deactivate snares, such as by shaking or hitting the devices.

Vampire bats starve to death if they do not feast on a blood meal after two nights. Roost-mates come to the rescue during famines, according to biology Gerald Wilkinson of the University of Maryland. "A buddy system ensures that food distribution among the bats is equitable," he explained. Bats seem to have BFFs with whom they regularly share blood meals via regurgitating. Barfing up blood may be a stomach churner for humans, but for these bats, it's a lifesaver.

Ants, well known for their complex societies, put the preservation of the overall colony above their individual needs. They identify colony members by scent, according to Gregg Henderson and colleagues from the USDA. Intruders who literally stink -- not matching the colony's signature scent -- will be attacked with as much force as an ant can muster.

Walruses breed during harsh Arctic winters, with mothers giving birth to just one offspring per season. If disaster strikes and the infant becomes an orphan, another walrus female may adopt it, according to The Encyclopedia of Earth. Communal care of young by multiple female walruses has also been documented.

There are many accounts of cats saving members of their own species and humans. One example of the former was Scarlett, a calico owned by Karen Weller of New York. When Scarlett and her litter of five kittens became trapped in a Brooklyn garage fire, the mother feline carried out each of her kittens to safety. During the five separate trips, Scarlett sustained severe burns to her eyes, ears and face, but she forged ahead until all kittens were out of danger.

In fiction, Lassie came to the rescue of seemingly everyone and everything. Fiction in this case mirrors fact, as there are countless reports of heroic dogs saving the day. A video on Animal Planet, for example, (http://animal.discovery.com/tv-shows/weird-true-and-freaky/videos/dog-rescues-dog-on-highway.htm) captured footage of a dog in Santiago, Chile, pulling another injured dog to safety. This first responder canine had to navigate through heavy traffic, but the brave dog managed to pull off a happy ending