An editor at National Geographic said it probably wasn't a good idea to put a border collie named Betsy on the magazine's cover.

An editor at National Geographic said it probably wasn't a good idea to put a border collie named Betsy on the magazine's cover.

"Animal covers don't do well," the editor said.

"That's not an animal," Virginia Morell said. "That's a dog."

Morell laughs remembering the exchange. Her spontaneous remark reflects not only the esteem in which we hold our pets, but increasingly, the intelligence shown by animals being studied by scientists around the world.

Morell, an Ashland-based science writer and author, wrote "Inside Animals' Minds," the cover story for this month's National Geographic magazine. To get the story, the frequent Geographic contributor traveled to Hawaii to check out research on dolphins, to Texas for studies of chimpanzees, to Austria to see brainy dogs, to Germany for chimps and bonobos, and to Oxford, England, for the latest on Western scrub jays.

Morell, also a correspondent for Science magazine, asks in the story if the ability to divide the world into abstract categories is part of the evolutionary drive that led to human intelligence. Scientists grappling with that question, she says, also face this one: "How do you get inside another species' mind?" The answers involve innovative research and revisions in the way scientists think about animals' abilities.

In researching the story, Morell even met Alex, an African gray parrot with a vocabulary of 200 words. Alex has been widely written about and featured on television. Morell says she was uncertain about including the bird in her story because he's so well-known, and because there's a lot of controversy around findings about him.

"You must," a Cambridge researcher told her. "It's the only animal we can talk to."

When Irene Pepperberg got Alex in a Chicago pet store in 1977, the dominant opinion among scientists was that animals were like machines or robots conditioned to react to stimuli but incapable of reasoning. To attribute human characteristics to them in any degree was to be guilty of the sin of anthropomorphism.

When Morell visited Alex and Pepperberg at Brandeis University, Alex could count to six and was working on the word "seven."

"Some words are hard for parrots because they don't have lips," Morell says.

After breakfast, Alex would lean forward and open his beak and say: "Ssse ... won. Se ... won!"

He was practicing.

"It sounded a bit mad," Morell writes, "the idea of a bird having lessons to practice, and willingly doing it. But after listening to and watching Alex, it was difficult to argue with Pepperberg's explanation for his behaviors. She wasn't handing him treats for the repetitious work or rapping him on the claws to make him say the sounds."

Anatomical studies had suggested that birds didn't have the cerebral hardware to do what, say, dogs can do.

"They lacked certain features," Morell says. "They don't have the neural structure mammals do. But about a year before I met Alex they found birds had all the same stuff, it's just arranged differently. Mammal brains are like a club sandwich. Birds' brains are more like a pizza."

Charles Darwin in the 19th century explained the reasoning brain as part of evolutionary biology. It must have evolved from simpler organisms, he wrote, and intelligence was found throughout the animal kingdom, even in earthworms. By the 20th century that view had faded, and many scientists embraced Behaviorism and a machine-like model. Now, Morell says, the pendulum has swung back. The roots of cognition are more widespread than was thought.

Perhaps the evolution of mental skills is best illustrated by dogs. In Leipzig, Germany, Morell met cognitive psychologist Juliane Kaminski, who is studying Betsy, the cover dog for this month's National Geographic. Betsy is able to look at a photo of a toy she's never seen before, then run into another room and find the object, first try. Kaminski was unsure scientists would accept evidence of Betsy's abstract skills, since it seems so close to the way humans learn.

"They keep setting the bar higher and higher," Morell says.

Morell wrote about New Caledonian crows that not only use tools but can figure out how to make them. About chimps that figure out how to position several boxes to get at a hanging banana. About scrub jays — the common jays of Southern Oregon — that not only cache nuts but return to move them if they suspect other jays saw them.

"I know that you know where I have hidden my stash of food, and if I were in your shoes I'd steal it, so I'm going to move my stash to a place you don't know about," was how a Cambridge researcher described the jays' viewpoint.

Not all scientists are buying it. Sara Shettleworth, a comparative psychologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, told Morell that animals don't distinguish among past, present and future. She said they lack "the extra layer of imagination and explanation" that form humans' running mental narratives.

But don't tell that to Louis Herman, who has been investigating the cognitive abilities of bottlenose dolphins since the 1960s. A dolphin named Akeakamai could understand not only signs representing objects but a grammar showing relationships. Shown signs for "right, basket, left, Frisbee, in," she would put the Frisbee on her left in the basket on her right. Reverse the signs and she would reverse her actions. She could complete such requests the first time.

Herman came to love the dolphins, whom he thought of as colleagues. He showed Morell a photo of himself in the pool with a dolphin named Phoenix. Her head is on his shoulder, and they are smiling.

"It's an image of love between two beings," Morell writes.

The magazine sent a photographer only after Morell's story was finished. Photos can be seen at www.nationalgeographic.com online.

"I came away very impressed not only with what the animals are doing," she says, "but they way the scientists are showing us what's going on in their minds."

She says she'd like to see humans find a way to be better about sharing the planet.

When Alex died at 31 in September, Morell heard from Pepperberg. Before he died, she said, Alex had mastered "seven."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or bvarble@mailtribune.com.