In his latest “Wonderlust” monthly column for PRINT Magazine, 50,000feet Senior Advisor Ken Carbone shares his perspective on what we can learn from animals—in the air, on land and in the seas. Using his journal to capture his artistic expression of the natural world, Ken reflects on the real and virtual encounters he has had with fascinating creatures.
Read the full article below.
Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: AI – Animal Intelligence
Like most people, I have a bittersweet relationship with social media. I love the art and music people share, but the inane human spectacle, not so much. However, the postings about animals and nature really draw me in. Pet videos are fun, but the images of strange creatures with whom we inhabit this planet are astonishing. I have a deep interest in the natural world, so in addition to books, documentaries, and first-hand experience, social media offers a “one-stop-shop” of rich content on animal life in a variety of landscapes: in the air, on land, and in the seas. I particularly appreciate images and videos revealing the mysterious sentient intelligence most animals display.
For decades, I have recorded the real and virtual encounters I’ve had with fascinating animals in my journals. I’ve chosen five I’d like to share for this essay, from the most common to the truly bizarre.
The enigmatic crow, a symbol of ingenuity and adaptability, showcases a remarkable repertoire of unique problem-solving abilities, tool use, and distinct behavioral intelligence. With keen observation and cunning, these black-winged marvels employ strategies akin to those seen in primates.
In a display of deductive reasoning, they will drop nuts onto busy roads and wait for cars to crush the shells while using traffic signals as cues for retrieval. Crows exhibit an astute understanding of cause and effect, making calculated decisions for daily survival. Also, they display an uncanny ability to recognize human faces and discern individuals based on subtle cues. This cognitive skill enables them to navigate urban landscapes and interact with humans, often forging relationships with those who provide them with food or shelter.
Crows are highly evolved avian intellectuals, navigating the complex world around them with excellent acuity.
Golden Orb Spiders
About a decade ago, I went to a meeting at the American Museum of Natural History; en route, I noticed a display case containing a beautiful golden tapestry. Its iridescent color and intricately woven designs were subtle and sophisticated. When I read the accompanying wall caption, I learned that this gorgeous creation was made entirely of silk from the golden orb spider found in Madagascar.
The female golden orb spider who spins the silk is large, with long, articulated legs. She is particularly nasty and cannibalistic, which makes herding large numbers of them a difficult task. And yes, they bite—but they’re not venomous.
The tapestry gets its golden color from the spider’s silk, which is naturally a saffron hue. The silk is hardly visible when extracted by hand from the spider’s spinneret, then carefully woven strand by strand into a thread for use on a loom. Dozens of native Malagasy “handlers” are employed in the spider collection, harnessing, silk extraction, and weaving. This design marvel is an impressive fusion of science, art, craft, and, I imagine, incredible dexterity.
In addition to appreciating the ethereal geometry of their webs, scientists have long pondered the industrial potential for spider silk because of its tensile strength. Five times stronger than steel by weight, the belief is that it could benefit medicine, construction, and even space exploration.
I’ve never met a pangolin, but they have always fascinated me. They look prehistoric and, from a design point of view, are exceptional examples of form and function.
Although they appear reptilian, the pangolin is a mammal native to Africa and Asia. They have stout bodies, about the size of a small dog, and are covered in overlapping scales made of keratin, which act as a protective armor against predators. They are quadrupeds, but often walk on two legs. This creature made headlines at the dawn of the COVID outbreak as a possible zoonotic transmitter of the virus to humans. This misunderstanding led to their mass slaughter in some countries, but the animal was ultimately exonerated.
Pangolins have a long, sticky tongue to slurp ants, termites, and other small insects, which comprise most of their diet. Instead of teeth, they have stomaches equipped with strong muscles that helps grind the food they consume.
Despite their formidable appearance, the pangolins are shy and docile. When threatened, they curl up into a tight ball, exposing only their tough exterior to potential predators. Their scales provide excellent defense, but sadly, they also make them targets for illegal wildlife trade, due to their dubious medicinal properties.
Pangolins are among the most trafficked animals in the world.
Although the octopus has reached Hollywood stardom after the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, the cuttlefish could easily win one in a future cinematic sequel.
This cephalopod’s ability to change its skin color and texture instantaneously offers incredible potential for adaptive camouflage emulating their surroundings, prey, and predators. Cuttlefish are covered in pigmented chromatophores that, combined with their excellent vision and brain stimuli, can dramatically change their appearance at will, not only in color, but in three-dimensional form. Additionally, they can animate their bodies with pulsating patterns that scientists believe hypnotize their prey.
Cuttlefish’s exceptional problem-solving abilities, flexible appendages, dexterous tentacles, and one spring-loaded, spear-like arm for feeding make them masterpieces of biological design. Although it’s hard to tell their front from their back, adaptive locomotion— which utilizes a “skirt” of fins and underside rudimentary jet propulsion— gives the cuttlefish speed and agility in both directions. By unlocking their secrets, we open the doors to innovative applications across diverse industries, shaping the future with the aid of these unique cephalopods.
For all that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson knows about the universe, he has a particular fondness for the earthy tardigrade.
The mighty tardigrade, a creature of microscopic marvel, possesses an extraordinary array of distinct characteristics and remarkable abilities. Encased in a resilient, armored exoskeleton no bigger than a dot on the letter “i,” this animal embodies resilience itself. With their endearing tubby forms, the “water bear,” as they are commonly known, navigates their environments with an unwavering determination, defying the odds at every turn.
Unparalleled in their capacity to withstand the harshest of conditions, the tardigrades’ resilience is a testament to their ability to endure extremes. They are impervious to the whims of nature, from the blistering heat of deserts to the icy vacuum of space. And they are everywhere, from a jungle riverbed to a backyard drop of morning dew. “For every one of us, there are a billion tardigrades,” Tyson reminds us.
Cloaked in a unique biological shield, this creature can enter a form of suspended animation called cryptobiosis, surviving without sustenance or oxygen for years.
Underneath their unassuming facades lie a hidden genetic arsenal that allows them to repair their own DNA with exceptional precision. Tyson states that the tiny tardigrade is half a billion years old, has survived all five mass extinctions, and has much to teach us.
None of these creatures have sent themselves to the moon, cracked the genetic code, or split the atom, but they are highly evolved and possess a super intelligence ideally suited for their robust existence. In comparison, modern-day humans and our industrialized lifestyles are fragile. We depend on SO MUCH STUFF to live. I think about this when I’m about to run out of gas, my air-conditioning fails, or the wi-fi doesn’t work. If Charles Darwin were alive today, he might call it “survival of the neediest.”
I once spent a memorable afternoon interviewing the late, eminent Harvard paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould. During a conversation about the hermaphroditic nature of snails, he compared human intelligence to that of animals. He tapped his head and said, “we think so much of ourselves because we’ve got this,” thus rejecting the idea that we are the only highly developed species.
Evolutionarily speaking, we humans are in our infancy compared to any of the animals I’ve featured here. We have achieved miracles, but still have much to learn to live in balance with our planet. Fortunately, Mother Nature, in all her abundant generosity, is always ready to help.