5 amazing feats of animal intelligence

In recent years, researchers have found that a wide variety of animal species, many of the cognitive skills that were once thought to be unique to humans. These findings show that we have grossly underestimated the intelligence of other animals, and that we are not as different from them as we like to think we are.

So, below are 5 amazing feats of animal intelligence which have been observed (and, in some cases, captured on film) over the past few years.

1. Plotnik et al (2006) have shown that elephants are capable of self -awareness. In the film clip below, the elephant recognizes itself in a mirror, and uses its trunk to try to remove a piece of tape stuck to its head.

2. Lin et al (2007) have shown that mice can think abstractly. This clip shows electrophysiological recordings taken from cells in the hippocampus of the mouse, which fire selectively when the animal enters an appropriately sized compartment that can be used as a nest.

3. Grosenick et al (2007) established that African cichlids can use simple logic to infer their position within a social hierarchy.

4. In a study published just last week, Osvath and Osvath showed that chimps can plan for the future. Last year, Raby et al showed that scrub jays are also capable of prospection.

5. Last, but by no means least, Hunt and Gray (2004) have observed the extraordinary tool-making abilities of the Caledonian crow. Watch this crow select an appropriate twig, prune it by removing unwanted side-twigs, then finally sculpt a fine hook from it with its beak.


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What you show is that there is less separation between us and the animal kingdom than we care to acknowledge. Anybody that has a dog or cat knows that these animals establish a form of communication that's all their own.

So I guess that question is this: does exhibiting these skills make them more human, or does it make us more like animals?

Hiram - the balanced health guy

Representations of animals partaking in intelligence of which humans have arrogantly claimed as a species specific trait, has never been valid in my perception, and I was pleased to read evidence of such. We are so closely related to other mammals and rival in genetic complexity, that I presume it would be ignorant to claim genetic superiority. As evolution has brought us about, so will it for other species... right? Assuming we allow a few to enjoy survival... Some of our intellectual advances came about in a few hundred thousand years. What of mice, in two hundred thousand more?

Yes, animals are very smart.

My money says that they do not have consciousness. And so there is a great difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom (ignoring the obvious great differences that include no animals reading and commenting on internet blogs...)

By Rich Beckman (not verified) on 23 Jun 2008 #permalink

I'd probably take the elephant video with a grain of salt. We discussed this paper in a class last semester. First of all, it wasn't tape, but a mark made with a substance that was not supposed to cause tactile sensation or scent, to control for the elephant just reacting to a smell or an itch, rather than purely visual information.

And they tested three elephants. Only one performed above chance on the mark test, but that behavior was not replicated in repeated trials (as I recall). Their excuse was that the elephant had become habituated to the mark, which made me wonder why they didn't vary the stimuli (e.g. move it to another spot or use a different color).

Also, they made the claim that the organisms passing the mark test progress through several stages involving attempts at social interaction (i.e. treating the reflection as someone to socially interact with), self-exploration, etc. But they explicitly state that the elephants didn't attempt to socially interact with their reflections.

Mark test experiments with dolphins are also highly open to interpretation (dolphins cannot touch their face or body) and have not been repeated and verified extensively. Although the evidence for chimps and orangs passing the mark test is very strong.

Birds are wonderful and amazing creatures. The video of the crow is fantastic. He/she tests branches till finding suitable material for a tool then deftly makes one (even with limited physical means, a beak). He is also very careful not to lose the tool after eating the caught morsel; after all, he put such care into making it and reasons it can be used again. He is a craftsman and, like humans making tools, appears to know much about what he is doing and why.

By paula marie deubel (not verified) on 23 Jan 2010 #permalink

National Geographic had a story a few years back that explained how chimps were making simple hunting tools. Admittedly, fabricating a hook is likely more advanced, but the chimps prepared their tools in the same fashion, selecting an appropriate stick, and removing unwanted side twigs. There are also certain worms that curl themselves into a wheel as a means of transportation, though I suspect that's more of a necessity natural selection sort of coincidence than an intellectual decision to use the wheel as a means of travel--if it was a intelligent and deliberate decision, I doubt they would be using their own bodies as the wheel!