DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
In Des Moines, Iowa, there's a research facility called the Great Ape Trust. The resident bonobos there recently acquired two new neighbors when the Iowa Department of Natural Resources donated a pair of trumpeter swans to the trust. Thus far, the swans remain nameless, but not for long. Bonobos are a highly intelligent ape species that resembles chimpanzees, so Karyl Swartz, a cognitive scientist at the institute, is asking them to name their new feathered friends.
I spoke with Ms. Swartz recently about the two sibling bonobos, a male and a female, who have been charged with naming the swans.
Dr. KARYL SWARTZ (Cognitive Scientist, Great Ape Trust of Iowa): Kanzi is a 26-year-old male. Panbanisha is his sister. She's 21 now, and I think Panbanisha has a little bit bigger vocabulary, but Kanzi is much more responsive and reactive and uses his own vocalizations. Panbanisha is much more considered in her responses.
ELLIOTT: She's a little more thoughtful.
Dr. SWARTZ: She is, and so I would say that he's more vocal than she is, but that doesn't mean that he's more adept at language. I think they're both very, very skilled.
ELLIOTT: But you don't have a conversation with them like I'm a having a conversation with you. How do you communicate with them?
Dr. SWARTZ: Well, we do have a conversation. We can understand the general nature of their vocalizations. They gesture, and we certainly can read their gestures, and they can read ours. They have a lexigram vocabulary.
ELLIOTT: What exactly is a lexigram?
Dr. SWARTZ: A lexigram is an abstract symbol or an abstract design. There are a variety of words on their lexigrams, so we can point to the lexigrams. We also use spoken English as we point, and they point to the lexigrams in response to us or to request something from us. So it is a back-and-forth interaction; it's just not limited to words.
ELLIOTT: How do you know that the bonobo is taking that to a different level, that it is an actual linguistic skill?
Dr. SWARTZ: Well, we can make observations first, and I think if you observe your dog and say the word "walk," that's when the ears go up and the excitement occurs, but the rest of the sentence may not be processed. The bonobos are much more sensitive to a large number of words. They can put words together in unique ways. An example would be, "Kanzi, can you put the pine needles into the refrigerator?" And he would pick up pine needles from among a large number of objects, take them over, open the refrigerator, and put them in. That's a big concept.
ELLIOTT: Now, are you going to give them certain choices, certain names to choose from?
Dr. SWARTZ: That seems like a reasonable approach, is to give them a list of names that, from our interactions with them, we think might be appropriate for the swans. Maybe they would want to name them - name one of them White, because they are white. Maybe they would want to name them something like Big, because they're big. But also, there are certain things in their environment that they are interested in, and right now, one of the bonobo staff is reading "Harry Potter" to them. So we all, kind of, think that one of the birds might be named Harry Potter.
ELLIOTT: Karyl Swartz is a cognitive scientist at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. Thank you for talking with us.
Dr. SWARTZ: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: For photos of the bonobos at work, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.