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Are animals creative? Carol Gigliotti's new book shows you just how creative they are

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

When you think of undomesticated animals, what words come to mind? Maybe it's wild or even vicious. For author Carol Gigliotti, the word is creative. In her book, "The Creative Lives Of Animals," she explores how animals think outside the box to face down challenges. So how does she define creativity?

CAROL GIGLIOTTI: It is that someone, whoever it is - human, crocodile, elephant - creates something that is new and meaningful to them, and that has the possibility of being handed down to a group, to a species, to a culture. And then that also may happen to actually change the evolution of that species.

MARTÍNEZ: Gigliotti says creativity is too often used to suggest that humans are the superior species.

GIGLIOTTI: I can't tell you how many times I've come across articles by scientists, other scientists, and people who say, oh, well, we are the best species because we are creative. And now you can say, no, (laughter) no, that's not true.

MARTÍNEZ: So what are some examples of this definition of creativity in animals?

GIGLIOTTI: Well, I think one of the most fascinating ones is the birds of paradise live in New Guinea. And there are, I think, 51 species. And two biologists with Cornell ornithological lab went to actually tape all of those species. And what they discovered was that the females actually decide what - they judge the males and what kind of dances and songs they do and also, most beautifully, how they negotiate their feathers and their incredible plumage to make the song or the dance really work. So if you look at these images of these birds, they're unlike anything you've ever seen before. And if you go to Cornell's site, you will become addicted. But what's interesting about - in terms of the creativity is they practice these songs. The males practice these songs and dances for years at a time. And the female comes and looks at it and - eh, it's OK - goes away.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

GIGLIOTTI: So the point is, is that over time, the females have actually been involved in the creativity because they've been the ones who have judged whether they thought it was beautiful or not - and not whether this particular male was stronger or would be more competitive, but whether he was more beautiful and more creative himself.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And I think, Carol, you know, the funny thing is I've seen these videos that you mentioned with these birds of paradise. And it is beautiful. And it is amazing. And I can't imagine that someone would look at that and not think that these animals are showing a creative side. There was another example that really struck me from your book, Carol, about prairie dogs, their warning calls and how different their warning calls could be from region to region.

GIGLIOTTI: That's really exciting. The person who put prairie dogs on the map was Con Slobodchikoff, who has a book called "Chasing Doctor Doolittle." And Dr. Slobodchikoff, I interviewed. And what he did was to study prairie dogs for years and years with his students and demonstrate and document their language, which has a syntax, you know, separation of words and actually being able to say, well, this is the object. And this is - but it means that those kinds of processes go on among animals.

And the other thing he found was that there were very creative things that they did. The first time that they saw something that was different, it was an oval, a black oval. And they had a different warning call for that than they did for all the other predators. The other funny thing about that I thought was really interesting was that they also could describe humans as - not as a predator but, yeah, kind of, because they get really kind of worried about it, what kind of color the person was dressed in, how tall they were. So they actually described them as they did other predators.

MARTÍNEZ: So we're talking nouns and adjectives. I mean, we're talking sentence structure. And the funniest part about this is that dialects - there are dialects.

GIGLIOTTI: Yes.

MARTÍNEZ: So there's a prairie dog, maybe, in Texas that sounds a lot different than a prairie dog somewhere else.

GIGLIOTTI: Yes. Yes. And you're right, that's - and that happens with whales. The kinds of songs that whales create in, you know, the Atlantic are very different from the Pacific. Though, at some point, sometimes, those mix. And somehow, you know, a song will get passed along. And how that happens, they're not really sure.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, there may be some surprise and skepticism that animals are displaying kind of an attitude instead of what, you know, may be just being perceived as ritualized behavior. So why do you think, Carol, is it so hard for humans to see or acknowledge that animals might be more capable than we think they are?

GIGLIOTTI: Well, I think that answer is pretty clear. I think that we have used animals in many ways, eating them, wearing them for clothes, you know, making them work for us. They've always - and maybe not always, but they have been useful to us. And I don't think we're - many people are not ready to give that up. And I do think that the human has the ability to sort of push things aside if it's not good for them (laughter). And with animals, I think that's really easy to do, which is why I have believed this for a long time.

But I supported every single thing I wrote in the book, with research from scientists who actually spent time with animals. And, you know, I think, if you look at all the research being done and you look at the science, I think you will - I hope people will begin to understand that, yeah, maybe we should rethink our use of animals. Maybe we shouldn't eat them. Or maybe we shouldn't wear them. Maybe we shouldn't use them in experimentation. If they're that smart, emotional, have all these incredible qualities, maybe we've missed the boat.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Carol Gigliotti. Her new book is called "The Creative Lives Of Animals." Carol, thanks.

GIGLIOTTI: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK JOHNSON SONG, "UPSIDE DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.