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ON SCIENCE

More than a match for Homo sapiens

Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence
By James R. Gould and Carol Grant Gould
Basic, 304 pp., illustrated, $26.95

The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal

Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy — and Why They Matter
By Marc Bekoff
New World Library, 256 pp., $23.95

The Elephant’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa
By Caitlin O’Connell
Free Press, 240 pp., illustrated, $24

Insects are dimwitted, right? Mindless pests with pinhead brains leading intellectually unchallenging lives. Hmm . . . .

Maybe not. Consider organ-pipe wasps. A female pipe wasp builds vertical tubes of mud beneath, say, the eaves of your house, then flies off to hunt. She paralyzes some spiders, stuffs them into a tube of her nest, lays an egg, entombs it beside the cache of food, and resumes constructing pipes.

Some wasps might simultaneously tend to a dozen nests at once. They not only remember the locations of each, but also keep track of what stage their developing larvae are in and coordinate feeding requirements accordingly.

So an individual hunting wasp, with lousy vision and a brain no larger than a poppy seed, can adjust for wind, maintain a sense of direction, memorize landmarks, and bring shopping lists with her as she heads out. Is it safe to say she can "memorize" spatial maps of her local surroundings? Could we go so far as to suggest that she possesses a slight degree of cognitive ability?

These are the kinds of questions animal behaviorists James and Carol Gould explore in an engrossing new book, "Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence." To what extent, they wonder, does an animal like a pipe wasp comprehend its activities? Is it merely obeying a series of coded instructions , or is there more sophisticated neural processing going on?

OK, maybe wasps aren't impressive enough. Try termites. These blind creatures, rarely more than a 12th of an inch long, routinely construct monumental castles 20 feet tall, replete with staircases, gardens, nurseries, waste dumps, air-conditioning systems, and water wells that can be as deep as 150 feet.

How far, the Goulds want to know, does the imagination of a termite extend? Does a single worker helping to build a single arch in a single room possess any notion of the vast citadel it is helping to create?

And what about vertebrates? Many birds show flexibility in choosing construction materials for their nest, and some species decorate their structures with ornaments. Does this betray a sense of individual style -- a sense of beauty? "Can we say," the Goulds ask, "that the human aesthetic is entirely different in origin and development from that of [ birds]?"

For millennia, humans have debated the degree of sentience in animals. The prospect of using the structures an animal builds to extrapolate its cognitive capability is irresistible. Fortunately for readers, the levelheaded Goulds prove wonderful guides through these shadowy corridors, at once skeptical and reverent. Even after 18 pages of testimony to the nearly miraculous building talents of beavers, the Goulds remind us that " they share with us some deeply foolish or thoughtless moments."

Fundamentally, "Animal Architects" is an analysis of the evolutionary sources of human planning, innovation, and imagination. But it's also a soft-spoken tribute to some of the smaller wonders of the world: the seine nets of caddis-fly larvae; the hanging nests of the weaverbird.

For a less objective survey of animal minds, you might look into "The Emotional Lives of Animals," by Marc Bekoff. This slim book is full of anecdotes about dogs saving abandoned bunnies, and horses with senses of humor, and it includes sentences like "Recognizing that animals have emotions is important because animal feelings matter."

I don't want to poke too much fun, though, because Bekoff is earnest about promoting compassion, something we can all use more of. Even if he cites Reader's Digest as readily as Science, Bekoff is ultimately interested in the same sorts of questions the Goulds are : What lines can be drawn between ourselves and our evolutionary ancestors? "Our species is different," Bekoff reminds us, "but it's also the same."

Finally, one of the more notable books about animals this spring is "The Elephant's Secret Sense," by Stanford naturalist Caitlin O'Connell. In the early 1990s, O'Connell watched a herd of Namibian elephants at a watering hole repeatedly freeze and prop one of their front feet on its toes, as if feeling for some distant tremor in the soil. Not long after witnessing these behaviors, O'Connell would see a vehicle, or another herd, or a lone bull approaching the watering hole.

O'Connell writes, "It seemed as if the whole herd were using their feet to detect a signal." She wondered if elephants might be capable of seismic communication.

Over the next decade our author sleeps in blinds, pores through elephant dung, darts and collars elephant matriarchs, puts zoo elephants on force plates to send vibrations to their feet, even cuts up a frozen elephant to search for vibration-sensitive cells in its toes and heels -- all in the hopes of understanding if elephants can listen through the ground.

"The Elephant's Secret Sense" is a compelling memoir of how a small but fascinating biological discovery is made, from a momentary observation to a fully presented theory. O'Connell learns, like all good scientists (and artists, for that matter), to see an initial question through to its conclusion, while remaining open to the new questions presenting themselves all around her.

Anthony Doerr is the author of "The Shell Collector" and "About Grace."

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