Animal psychologist Alex Taylor was an internet sensation with his BBC video of a clever crow named 007. He's recently shown kea can co-operate to solve problems in a similar way to chimps and has opened the Clever Canine Lab to study man's best friend at Auckland University.

1 Why do you study animal psychology?

I'm fascinated with how animals think. It's one of the big mysteries of science. We understand more about what happened one second after the big bang that created our universe than we do about what the animals around us are actually thinking. What type of thoughts an animal is having, the structure of those thoughts, whether it consciously experiences the world - these are all questions we don't have a good answer to.

2 What have scientists been able to show so far about the way animals think?

Advertisement

For the past 100 years we've had a big debate in our field between the "animal lovers'"and the "killjoys". Animal lovers argue that animals can think in sophisticated ways that mirror human thought patterns. Killjoys are sceptics who argue that everything animals do can be broken down into simple learned rules. The debate has gone backwards and forwards but we still don't actually have a clear idea of what animals are thinking.

3 Are you an animal lover or a killjoy?

I'm a bit of both. I'm far more interested in understanding exactly how animals think. What if they're thinking in ways that are completely alien to humans? Each animal has evolved sufficient intelligence for its environment, so animals like dolphins and killer whales could think in spectacularly different ways to us, particularly given their use of sonar. Are we on a planet that is full of intelligences that are very similar to our own? Or are we surrounded by alien intelligences that think completely different to us? Either answer is really exciting.

4 You've got an Oxford degree and did your post doctorate at Cambridge. Why did you come to New Zealand?

I wanted to study tool-use in New Caledonian crows and the world leaders in this area were Professor Russell Gray and Dr Gavin Hunt from the University of Auckland. They had discovered that these birds use and make hook tools, a behaviour that we don't see in any other animal, not even our closest relative, the chimpanzee. The pair's pioneering work with this species gave me the chance to start examining if their use of hook tools reflected an intelligent mind. I also discovered how much fun you can have outdoors in New Zealand. Surfing and kiteboarding help me maintain a work-life balance.

5 You've made some popular YouTube clips of your crow studies. What has been your greatest hit?

We've had over 12 million views of a video I made with the BBC of a crow named 007 solving a complex problem where he had to carry out eight tool behaviours in a specific sequence in order get some food. It was for a documentary called Inside the Animal Mind in 2014.


6 Was it more of a TV stunt to teach viewers that crows are clever than a study to help scientists learn something?

Initially we published two papers showing that New Caledonian crows can solve two and three stage tool problems. This was a breakthrough as it showed these crows can use their tools not just to get food, but also to get other tools. This suggested they understood how their tools worked and could plan. What we did with the BBC was to add more stages. Taking the task to eight stages captured people's imagination but it didn't prove that the crows have a mental plan of action before taking on the task. You need a different kind of experiment to get to the heart of that question. Watch this space.

7 How do you design experiments to see animal's thought processes?

When we see animals solving a problem it's easy to assume they thought about it the way we do. But it's a big jump to go from seeing an animal's behaviour to making the inference it was thinking like a human. I'm trying to design experiments to see if animals show the same patterns of behaviour as humans across a variety of tasks all focused on one type of thought process, such as planning or reasoning. I'm also looking to see if they show the same patterns of mistakes. By searching for patterns of behaviour, or cognitive signatures, we can see the degree to which two different minds are thinking similarly.

8 Growing up in Manchester, can you remember when you first discovered a love of science?

I loved watching the documentaries of David Attenborough, getting his insights into animal behaviour and the drama that goes on in their lives but I always felt there was so much that went unanswered: What were these animals thinking? How did they perceive the world? What did they feel about it? I developed a keen interest in biology and psychology.

9 Do you eat animals?

There are really good ethical and environmental reasons to not eat animals but I was raised to eat whatever was put on my plate, so I'm a flexitarian. At home I eat a vegan diet. When I am out and about or visiting friends I eat whatever's offered or seems appetising.

10 You won the Prime Minister's Emerging Scientist Prize in 2015. Have you spent the $150,000 research grant yet?

I've only spent a portion so far, mostly studying kea. We've had some exciting research published in the journal PLOS One, showing that kea solve problems requiring co-operation in a similar way to chimpanzees and elephants. We found kea were able to work with a partner to get food by pulling on either end of a piece of string to move it closer, and could wait up to 65 seconds for a partner to arrive. Next, we're using our understanding of kea intelligence to help with their conservation. We are also about to begin examining if kea have something similar to human laughter.

11 You've recently set up the Clever Canine Lab at the University of Auckland. Why study dogs?

Thirty thousand years ago we started a grand, unplanned experiment. We began domesticating dogs. We selected them for different physical traits, leading to the breeds we see today. At the same time we selected dogs for their minds. We chose dogs that paid attention to our body language; that could become part of the family by bonding closely to us, or would be concerned for our safety. So dogs have evolved a sophisticated social intelligence. This offers us a wonderful opportunity to understand how different types of social intelligence evolve generally. Have dogs evolved to think like us, and form social bonds like we do? Or do they do it in a very different way?

12 What have you found out about dogs so far?

So far we've focused on the bonds that develop between humans and dogs. What do dogs think of us? Do they feel jealous when we pay attention to another dog? Do they feel guilty when we tell them off? Already our work's throwing up some really interesting results which we hope to publish once we have more data.

If dog owners would like to volunteer their pet to take part in the research they can sign up online at the link below. clevercaninelab.auckland.ac.nz