Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Society is the totality of social relationships in a community of animals (including human communities). Animals that live in groups gain benefits, including increased protection from predators, increased access to resources (such as group hunting or holding of territories), and increased access to mates.

Think Tank examines the social behaviors of cooperation, alliance-building, hierarchical conflicts, deception, and innovation in asking the question, "Does social behavior require thinking?" Looking at social behavior for evidence of thinking is a more recent field of research compared with tool use and language.

Social interactions require communication between members of the group. Communication may be in the form of chemical signals (including pheromones), visual signals (including facial expression, posturing, and physical changes), audible signals (including vocalizations and for some, language), and other behaviors (such as grooming, avoidance, and resource sharing). While some forms of communication show evidence of thinking, many others do not.

Deciding whether thinking is occurring in a social context requires baseline behavioral data. Observers need to become intimately familiar with the individuals in a society before they can tell what behaviors might involve thinking. A baseline definition of behavioral characteristics is called an ethogram. Creating a complete ethogram requires scientists to look at behaviors over and over again before being able to find the behaviors that might involve thinking.

After many years of baseline collection on an animal society, a scientist can present animals with challenges and tasks in order to look at relationships and assess how they change over time. With baseline data, a scientist can compare behaviors and may see imagery, intention, and flexibility in the way the animals use social skills.