Liz Bonnin
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 02 February

Liz Bonnin on super-smart animals

TV presenter Liz Bonnin explains why talking to a bonobo ape was probably the most interesting conversation she has ever had

Liz Bonnin has presented some of the BBC's most popular programmes, including Autumn Watch, Springwatch and Bang Goes The Theory. Most recently she presented Stargazing Live from South Africa. She has a Masters in Wild Animal Biology from the Zoological Society of London.

Liz talks to Peter Moore about her new series, Super Smart Animals, where she travelled the world researching animal intelligence.

Tell us about your new programme, Super Smart Animals.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to travel the world in search for the planet's most intelligent animals. I discovered that animals are far more clever than we once thought, matching us in the capabilities we used to believe set humans apart from other animals; like tool use, language, planning ahead and emotional intelligence. Some are also capable of intellectual feats that humans cannot beat, something I experienced for myself when a chimpanzee beat me in a memory test!

Animal intelligence is a subject that has always fascinated me, particularly since I completed my Masters in wild animal biology, so it was a dream job for me to meet the scientists at the cutting edge of research that’s only just beginning to reveal the true extent of intelligence in other species.

Where did your travels take you to?

I travelled everywhere – Mexico, Nevada, Alaska, Seattle, Honduras, St Kitts, Botswana, Germany, Japan... The list goes on. The world is such a wonderful place, there are so many things going on in nature that we have no idea about as we go about our daily lives. It was a real privilege to be witness to some of them as part of my job.

What were the highlights?

It’s difficult to pick them because as we surrounded ourselves with the next species of interest they would immediately become my favourites.

The humpback whales of Alaska were incredible, as they came together in large groups around our RIB to feed on herring. They create a net of bubbles from their blowholes to trap the fish. We put a hydrophone into the water to hear the beautiful, almost ghostly high-pitched feeding calls of the whales as they herded the fish to the surface and then emerged with mouths open like giant mussel shells to feed. It is a spectacular, highly complex and synchronised behaviour that demands great brain power.

The elephants of the Okovango Delta in Botswana are also ingrained in my memory forever. A huge herd surrounded us at twilight one evening and one particular female and I locked eyes for what seemed like eternity, she reacted to every tiny movement of mine and it was so plainly obvious how intelligent she was. These animals remember places they have visited only once in their lifetimes, often up to 40 years ago, and somehow know how to find them again across the vast inhabitable landscape. Scientists are proving that they exchange this knowledge of specific places and the time of year when food is available, not only when they meet but also across hundreds of miles in a way that remains to be explained.

Were you surprised by just how intelligent animals were?

In some ways, I wasn’t that surprised. Partly because I knew a little about this subject from my studies but also because I have always felt that we have overlooked what animals are truly capable of. We have been assessing intelligence in other animals using human-based tests, so it makes sense that apes will fare better than other species (and they are very intelligent animals!) but we are only beginning to understand that animals are as intelligent as they need to be for their environment and therefore can often do things we cannot do, and that we haven’t yet been able to assess accurately.

Mustangs communicate in a very complex body language, with every subtle muscle twitch meaning something to the herd or an intruder. Many other animals communicate in ways we simply don’t understand yet. Imagine what we could find out about them if we could communicate in their language! And when it comes to our understanding of emotional intelligence in animals, for me the most fascinating area of all, we are finally making some real progress.

I travelled to Mexico to encounter grey whales that purposefully brought their calves to our boat and supported them out of the water so that we could scratch their bellies. One calf stayed around my boat for over an hour, turning on its side to eyeball me and repeatedly rolling over to be scratched. It was an extremely powerful experience, and my science head was telling me that whatever was going on here wasn’t a random event and certainly warrants more study.

Scientists have already discovered that whales have spindle cells in their brains. These cells are responsible for emotions, empathy and self-awareness and were previously thought to exist only in humans and other great apes. I also met up with scientists in Seattle whose research has proved that crows feel the emotion of fear, having the same ‘fear centre’ in the brain as we do, which lights up in a MRI scanner after a frightening event.

Which animal surprised you the most?

Having an actual conversation with a bonobo at the Ape Trust in Iowa was probably the most surreal thing I’ve ever done. Panbanisha is a 16-year-old female bonobo who communicates with symbols that represent English words and we had an actual, two-way conversation using our respective symbols boards, although she clearly understood what I was saying too.

We discussed the surprise I bought her, if we should paint together, and then she pointed to the symbol for ‘collar’, then to me, the symbols for ‘open’, ‘room’ and finally ‘car’. She completely understood the context of the situation – I was a visitor and therefore she must put her collar on if we are to go for a drive, which we did. It actually felt completely normal at the time, it was only on the plane on the way home that I was questioning if it had all really happened!

You've just returned from hosting Stargazing Live from South Africa. What was that like?

It was incredible. We stayed in the little town of Sutherland, a place I probably would never have visited otherwise but which was so welcoming and lovely. That’s another great thing about my job, getting to see places you might not have necessarily thought of visiting.

As for the SAAO observatory and the SALT telescope astronomers, we had a wonderful experience and I learned a lot from these passionate, inspirational scientists. And it’s a very exciting time to work in astronomy!

Any adventures while you were in South Africa?

Other than an immense thunder storm sitting over the SALT telescope as we prepared to go live to the UK on the first night, things went rather smoothly. It was ironic though, we had had beautiful clear skies for ten days and on the night of the live transmission Dara and Brian had better weather in Manchester than we had in South Africa. The SALT team also invited us for a famous South African braai under the stars at the foot of the telescope one night, which was great.

Your father is French. Your mother is from Trinidad. Did having such an exotic background influence your travels?

Yes definitely. Ever since I was very little we travelled from Europe to the Caribbean for holidays and my grandmother also took all the grandchildren on many trips. I have always loved getting on an aeroplane and landing somewhere new, it’s always a thrill for me to discover new places, cultures and food.

You started in a pop group in Ireland called Chill and presented Top of the Pops. Was biochemistry and animal biology always a passion or something you've come to recently?

I have always been into science. I loved biology and chemistry at school and had completed my biochemistry degree before getting into music and television, something I had never planned to do but decided to try out when an opportunity arose.

But I always knew I’d go back to science and I completed my Masters in 2008. Bang Goes the Theory was auditioning for presenters just as I finished my exams and I thought it might be nice to do more presenting but this time on a subject that I am passionate about. It’s a real privilege to be able meet the scientists at the cutting edge of research and to learn more about various scientific topics, but it is also very rewarding to work as a team on a production and to communicate what we learn.

What's next?

I am currently filming the next series of Bang Goes the Theory, which will be on air in March. If I am lucky, I will continue to present science and Natural History on the BBC for a while yet, because I love what I do!

Super Smart Animals will be shown on BBC 1 Wednesday 8 & Thursday 9 February at 8pm.

 

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