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Top ten animal geeks

Animals pretend to be down with the pups, but in reality they're just as dorky as us. Here's your definitive guide to the geekiest animals who ever lived...

Other than sitting calmly in his biopack, Ham's only task on his Project Mercury space mission was to push a lever when he saw a flashing blue light. Although he performed the task flawlessly, scientists had rigged an incentive in the form of electrodes on Ham's feet. These would send a persuasive shock to the chimpanzee should he dawdle.

Luckily for Ham, his little arm reached out tentatively and pulled the lever soon after his capsule entered space, on 31 January 1961. Ham splashed down in the ocean and went on to live until the grand old age of 27. He spent most of his remaining time on earth as a celebrity, appearing on television and in a film with Evel Knievel.

Ivan Pavlov used many dogs in his famous experiments, but only one remains morbidly preserved in the Pavlov Museum. The Russian scientist discovered a phenonomen known as 'classical conditioning'. Using dogs as his test subjects, Pavlov monitored the amount of saliva an animal produces when exposed to food under different circumstances.

He soon discovered that the dogs would salivate in anticipation of food if other stimuli (such as the ringing of a bell) previously associated with food were present. Pavlov could effectively make his dog salivate by ringing a bell even if there was no food to eat -- a heartlessly cruel but fascinating achievement.

Schrodinger's cat is a hypothetical animal used to demonstrate a 'quantum superposition' where 'dead' and 'alive' states coexist. It's enough to blow your mind, so skip onwards if your office party was yesterday.

As we understand it, if a cat was put in a box with a poison that could be released at a completely random time by the decay of a radioactive isotope, the cat could be either alive or dead at the same time from the point of view of anyone outside the box. This describes quantum superposition and decoherance. The most qualified physics expert we could reach at the time of writing described it to us as something along the lines of: "If a tree were to fall in the woods and no one was there to hear it, would it make a noise?"

Dolly, the first successfully cloned mammal, is now deceased and her lovingly stuffed carcass can be viewed at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh. She was cloned from a cell in 1996 and was genetically identical to her 'mother'. Scientists have speculated that Dolly's premature death may have been a result of her source genetic material coming from a six-year-old ewe. This may have meant that Dolly was genetically already six years old when born.

Dolly achieved significant celebrity, but never appeared in any major television shows or a motion picture. She is, however, the most geeky sheep in all of history.

In the early 20th Century, debate raged over whether Clever Hans could really perform the mathematical tasks his trainer demonstrated. Hans appeared to be able to do complex mathematics, read and communicate in German. Hans even appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

Ultimately, a killjoy named Oskar Pfungst proved that Hans was not really capable of all these skills, but was following subtle visual cues from his trainer. Even so, it was a pretty smart feat and even the trainer himself was apparently unaware of Hans' trickery. This all goes to reinforce the age-old saying: never trust a horse who can read.

Hansken was a crafty elephant who lived in the 17th Century. She could wave a flag and fire a pistol -- presumably first to feign surrender, then to attack her victim while he was off-guard. She could also drum and pick pockets.

Hansken toured Europe (whether she booked her own passage is unclear) and was sketched by Rembrant in a kind of perverse pre-enactment of that scene in Titanic where Leonardo DiCaprio sketches Kate Winslet. The people of the time believed that elephants had concepts of religion and science. Some thought that Hansken was a few choice lessons away from grasping human speech, or writing a great novel. Neither materialised, but regardless, Hansken was quite probably the largest geek ever.

K9 may be fictional, but he's an icon of geekdom to millions of animals around the world. Famous as Dr Who's sidekick, K9 has a laser weapon built into his nose and, in reality, has a Mars robot at NASA named after him.

Originally, the special effects department behind K9 intended to use an actor stuffed inside a robotic costume, but after sobering up they opted for a radio-controlled prop that became notorious for interfering with camera equipment.

Koko is the gorilla who inspired the talking ape in Michael Crichton's novel Congo. It's believed that Koko can communicate using 1,000 American Sign Language hand gestures and understand 2,000 English words.

Koko has apparently demonstrated original thought. Her trainer cites examples where the gorilla has combined two disparate descriptive terms into a new one. For example, Koko used the words 'finger' and 'bracelet' to describe a ring. Debate rages over the extent of Koko's understanding, however, and bizarrely the gorilla has been the subject of lawsuits in which handlers have alleged sexual harrassment by the creature.

Unlike Koko, Alex has never made moves on his trainer, but is capable of speaking around 1,000 words and seems to understand what he's talking about. When Alex is bored of psychologist owner Irene Pepperberg testing him, he says "I'm gonna go away" and will also apologise for upsetting her.

Alex can count objects of a particular description on a tray and make complex comparisons between objects, calling them "bigger", "smaller" or "the same".

Hoover was a seal who could speak in what has been described as a "drunken New England accent" and would insult the neighbours of his Boston owners. He appeared on television and in newspapers, offering expert commentary on the issues of the day -- admittedly with a rather nonsensical and limited vocabulary, while slobbering wildly, but then those same disabilities haven't stopped political careers.

Hoover lived a happy life as an international novelty, but died in a moulting incident in 1985.

Check out our previous top ten geek lists: Top ten nerds and geeks and Top ten girl geeks. And don't be shy, feel free to tell us exactly where we went wrong on this one. -CS