Photograph Credit: David Blank

Animal Cognition: How Smart Are Animals?

Ethology Comments (1)

The wilderness is a dangerous place where even the most powerful animals can succumb to quick and unexpected deaths. In this merciless world, man was able to survive and dominate ultimately due to one trait, superior intelligence. However, humans are not the only creatures which possess high intelligence. Although humans are the most intelligent beings on earth, we sometimes underestimate the thinking power of the other creatures we share this world with. Many species of animals also have to use their cognitive abilities in order to survive, whether they are outsmarting their prey, or tricking their deadly predators and competitors. Over years of research and observation, scientists have gained a better understanding of the mental abilities of several different animals. In time, the idea that animals are purely instinctive beings faded away, and a fascination in their unexpected brainpower took its place. So just how smart are animals? The answers may leave you more than a little surprised.

Canines are well known for their intellect and an excellent first animal to observe due to the familiarity between them and humans. Considered among the most intelligent of animals, they have become very useful to humans due to their social lifestyle and excellent ability to learn commands of different varieties. These traits have allowed them to become excellent companions as well as fellow workers. They are also emotional beings, capable of feeling sadness and even jealousy.[1] These traits go back to a profound purpose, survival. Wolves often live in packs with interesting social structures. There exists an alpha pair as well as several subordinates, ending with a low ranking wolf known as the omega.[2] These animals play together, hunt together, and show different levels of respect to one another depending on their ranks. The mental capacity necessary for this form of social understanding alone points to the possession of high intelligence. However, their intelligence can also be observed when the animals hunt. Wolves prefer to hunt weak animals such as sick, young, or old individuals. These clever canines will scan a herd of animals for members which possess these traits, sometimes scaring and scattering the herd in order to flush out a vulnerable target. Even if a chase begins, the wolves may call off the hunt if the animal is seen as too risky a target (perhaps because it exhibits more stamina than was initially conceived by the pack). The purpose of this careful analysis is to provide the wolves with a target which constitutes as few risks as possible so that the hunters may avoid injuries.[3] This ability to anticipate dangerous situations makes the wolf an excellent problem solver, a trait which several dogs have been bred for since the domestication of the wolf.

The gray wolf is an intelligent hunter which has shared a long history with humans.

The dog (Canis lupus familiaris), being little more than the domesticated form of the gray wolf (Canis lupus), has kept many of these cognitive abilities. Some dogs have been bred specifically for their ability to easily learn a variety of commands (such as poodles and German shepherds), while others (such as Siberian huskies) display their intellect in different ways, such as discovering a multitude of ways of escaping yards and catching small animals.[4] Much like wolves, dogs possess problem solving abilities and a hierarchical social structure in groups. Their astounding learning abilities and willingness to work have made dogs incredibly effective partners for thousands of years. They have been effective as pets, beasts of burden, and have also proven themselves useful in warfare and law enforcement.

Dolphins (and cetaceans in general) are also well known for their great intelligence. They have proven themselves to be superb problem solvers, as they have discovered several different hunting methods depending on their current habitat. Some of these methods are simply incredible! In South Carolina, bottlenose dolphins (Genus Tursiops) make use of a strategy known as strand-feeding. Here, the clever marine mammals force fish onto mud flats via waves that the dolphins produce. The dolphins then temporarily strand themselves on the mud flats together with the fish, clumsily making their way to their trapped prey and scoring easy meals before making their way back into the water. The same species also makes use of a strategy known as kerplunking where the dolphins find fish hidden in sea grass by creating splashes with their tail flukes. The startled fish begin to move within the sea grass in response to the splash and make their location known to the dolphin (which probably uses its echolocation abilities in order to make the process easier). This particular strategy has been observed in Florida and Western Australia. Bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia also make use of sponges in order to dig comfortably in the sand for prey. This is thought to protect the delicate skin on the dolphins’ rostra, or beaks. It appears that most of these dolphins are related, leading to the idea that female calves pick up this unusual hunting behavior from their mothers. If this is true, then there is a possibility that these dolphins are capable of creating simple forms of culture and tradition.[5]

The bottlenose dolphin is among the most intelligent of marine creatures.

Dolphins are capable mimicking the actions of their trainers as best as they can, such as raising their tail flukes when a trainer raises a leg in the air.[6] Research results and experiments also point to the possibility of dolphins possessing mathematical skills and an understanding of relative numerosity (the concept that a small number of items is less than a higher number of those items). It is possible that these numerical abilities could prove useful in the wild where dolphins must forage for food and evaluate their competition.[7] Dolphins can even comprehend a variety of different pointing gestures and commands, even though dolphins themselves do not possess limbs (and would thus be expected to struggle to understand limb-related gestures such as these pointing commands). In fact, dolphins are able to understand these gestures much more readily than primates such as chimpanzees![8]

So then, what does that say for chimpanzees? Are they less intelligent than we thought? Although chimpanzees (Genus Pan) may not excel in certain areas, they are certainly capable of displaying high levels of cognition. Firstly, they are among the very best tool users in the animal kingdom (rivaled only by other primates). Much like the bottlenose dolphins, chimpanzees will use a variety of different strategies for finding food depending in the situation. When searching for termites, these smart simians will insert a plant stem into the termite mound. The termites respond by biting onto the stem, and the chimpanzee then pulls them out for an easy meal.[9] However, the clever primates do not stop there. The clever primates also use stones as hammers, anvils, and even cleavers for breaking down food such as large fruits and seeds into more manageable pieces.[10] Much like the notion of area-specific culture among bottlenose dolphins, this method of technology among chimpanzees only occurs within certain groups and has also been theorized to be a form of culture or tradition. Yet even this level of tool use does not represent the greatest technological capabilities that chimpanzees possess. In an incredible discovery made from observing chimpanzees in Senegal, scientists have confirmed that chimpanzees are frequently creating spears and using them to hunt other primates such as bushbabies![11] As if chimpanzees were not already expected to be clever animals, this eerily human-like behavior shows how intelligent these creatures truly are.

Chimpanzees are known to use sticks much like spears in order to hunt other primates.

Of course, there is more to these animals than tool use. Chimpanzees have proven themselves to be quite capable of associating symbols with meanings, and have even been taught sign language. One particular chimpanzee, named Washoe, eventually learned over 800 signs.[12] She became very skilled with her use of sign language, and even learned to slow down her rate of signing when novice students would come in to work with her.[13] Once she learned a sufficient number of signs, she began to combine different signs together to express new meanings for objects which were foreign to her. In one case, she was unfamiliar with the sign for “thermos” and instead referred to it as “METAL CUP DRINK.”[14] Washoe was also an emotional creature (as are other chimpanzees). One of her caretakers suffered a miscarriage, and thus missed work for many weeks. Upon finally returning, the caretaker was not received well by Washoe, who has unhappy with the woman’s long absence. Eventually, the caretaker tells Washoe about her experience by signing “MY BABY DIED.” In an incredible act of understanding, Washoe momentarily pauses and then looks into the caretaker’s eyes, carefully responding with the sign for “CRY.”[15]

Apart from these skills, chimpanzees are also capable of understanding numerical concepts and excel at memory tasks. In fact, their abilities in memory tasks appear to (strangely enough) rival those of humans. Japanese researchers have pitted chimpanzees against college students in short-term memory tests, with the chimpanzees actually outscoring their human competitors as the tests became more difficult![16]

Elephants can be just as impressive with their cognition. In fact, elephants are considered to be just as intelligent as primates.[17] Since elephants also live in closely bonded groups, emotion and the ability to cooperate are essential parts of their lives.[18] They also possess excellent memory, which could come in handy when a herd’s matriarch must determine whether an approaching outsider is of no threat or a known enemy (an older and more experienced matriarch is likely to recognize old friends and enemies).[19] Using their trunks like arms, they are capable of using tools rather well, such as using a branch to scratch themselves or swat annoying flies.[20] Their use of tools can be much more profound, however, as they have been known to destroy electric fences by dropping large rocks on them.[21] Elephants are surprisingly good at mimicry. One particular female African elephant (Genus Laxodonta) in Tsavo National Park, Kenya, named Mlaika has surprised scientists with her interesting ability to mimic nearby traffic noises.[22] In fact, Mlaika’s calls and the actual traffic sounds are said to sometimes be nearly indistinguishable. Another elephant at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland named Calimero has also caught the attention of scientists with his mimicry. Calimero is an African elephant, but he has managed to learn and copy the chirping calls of the Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) he lives with (African and Asian elephants possess different calls). These mimicking abilities could be useful for elephants trying to stand out among other elephants in the area, making them easy for relatives to identify from long distances despite any number of surrounding elephants.[23]

Elephants are among the most emotional of animals and are known to mourn their deceased herd members.

Elephants distinguish themselves from other animals by the extent to which they express altruism to other creatures as well as how they handle the deaths of other elephants. Elephant herds have been known to slow down for the sake of one or more members with injuries that hinder their movement. In one case, an entire herd was traveling unusually slowly due to one female refusing to let go of her dead calf. Elephants have also gone out of their way to save animals which are not members of their herd or even their own species. One report consists of an adult elephant aiding a baby rhino stuck in mud. Despite the difficulty of the task and the repeated aggression of the rhino’s mother against the elephant, the altruistic creature continued trying to save the stuck rhino.[24] However, the true extent of an elephant’s emotions is clear when one observes their grieving process. Elephants will remember and mourn their herd members even years after their deaths. They will stop once they reach the site of a deceased member, taking a long and silent pause. They may also touch and caress the bones of their partners with their trunks. Though researchers do not entirely understand the motives of these actions, they theorize that it could be the elephants grieving, reliving memories, trying to identify the deceased animal, or any combination of these. Elephant herds are also known to drop grass clumps and branches over the carcasses of recently deceased members. The pain of loss appears to hinder the elephant for quite some time, as mother elephants have been observed slowing down their herds for days after the deaths of their calves.[25] Elephants are the only animals which carry out any sort of death ritual and are clearly among the most emotional of all creatures.

"The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind."- Aristotle. Photo credit: Scotch Macaskill

High intelligence is not exclusive to mammals, however. Birds have also been endowed with surprisingly high intellect. In fact, some species have proven themselves to be just as advanced in their tool use as chimpanzees. The New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides), for example, commonly creates hooked probes out of twigs and leaves in order to pull out grubs from deep within tree trunks. The crow uses its beak much like a pair of scissors in order to fashion the tool to its liking. They create hooks from twigs and barbed, serrated rakes or combs from tough leaves. Once they are satisfied with their new grub-fishing tool, they will carry it from one foraging site to another, pulling out flavorful insect larvae to eat.[26] However, these crows do not just make tools from twigs and leaves. They are able to recognize the usefulness of many different objects as well, even unnatural material. One specimen, named Betty, surprised three Oxford University researchers during an experiment focusing on their tool-using capabilities. Betty and another crow named Abel were presented with a hooked wire and straight wire in order to retrieve some food. Abel took the hooked wire, but Betty simply improvised by bending the straight wire to form a hook. She went on to complete the experiment, using her hooked tool to lift a small bucket of food (pig heart) from a vertical pipe. This surprised the researchers, as there were no previous reports of animals making hooks out of unnatural materials. The experiment was also the first time the crows had been presented with wires.[27]

The New Caledonian crow is an incredibly intelligent animal which can create its own foraging tools. Photo credit: Keith Brust

Some birds possess amazing memory powers as well. One species, the Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana), can collect and bury up to 30,000 pine seeds over three weeks in November. This relative of the crow buries them over an area of 200 square miles. Over the next eight months, the bird is able to retrieve over 90 percent of the hidden seeds even though they may be covered by large amounts of snow.

Parrots, a different order of birds, also display high intellect. Among the most intelligent are the Kea parrots (Nestor notabilis), which possess intelligence that is often said to rival that of primates.[28] They are capable of solving logical puzzles and are even known to cooperate with each other in order to accomplish a certain task.[29] However, what makes these birds popular (and notorious) is their destructive playing behavior, which includes ripping windscreen wipers off cars and dropping rocks on roofs in order to force people to run outside![30] The African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is another intelligent species, known for their capacity to learn a massive number of different words and sounds. One notable parrot, named Alex, became famous for his astounding talking abilities and ability to distinguish colors, shapes, sizes, and materials.[31] Owned and taught by Irene Maxine Pepperberg, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University, Alex continued learning until his death at the age of 31.[32] Truly, Alex changed the meaning of the term “birdbrain.”

Kea parrots are clever birds with a mischievous style of playing that can result in damaged cars and broken windows.

What may come as a surprise to some is the idea of intelligence in invertebrates. Yet the octopus is an excellent example of a clever cephalopod. These creatures can be surprisingly curious, examining divers by tugging away at their masks and air regulators. In captivity, they have proven to be troublesome creatures. Some of their antics include lying in ambush and then spitting in their keepers’ faces, dismantling pumps and blocking drains (resulting in costly floods), and sneaking from their tanks at night to other exhibits in order to eat some fish (with the only detail giving them away being the damp trails they leave behind as they sneak between exhibits).[33] The octopus is also a known user of tools, using halved coconuts and seashells as shelters. This clever use of tools provides the soft-bodied octopus with protection against predators.[34] Octopi can also open jars which contain food by twisting off the tops. This behavior seems similar to their hunting behavior when it comes to shelled mollusks. They open the shells of clams and mussels by prying them open with their tentacles, smashing through the shells (in the case of thin mussels), or drilling through the tougher shells of clams using their rasp-like radulae.[35] Which method the cephalopods use depends on the situation. It can be said that this behavior requires a certain level of problem solving skill. Their mastery of camouflage is also a good indicator of intelligence. In order for an octopus to camouflage itself properly, it must gauge its surroundings and change its body according to its current environment. This includes transforming its body shape, pattern, color, texture, and brightness in a fraction of a second.[36] That requires a hefty amount of brainpower that not all creatures possess.

Octopi are surprisingly clever animals that can create their own shelters from coconut halves and seashells. Photo credit: Roger Steene

Studying animal intelligence is not an easy task. Many animals possess brains which function differently from ours, making the use of certain kinds of cognition tests risky. Marine mammals, for example, possess brains designed for processing information in a completely different world from that of apes or canines. As a result, tests designed for an ape or dog may not work with a dolphin. However, knowledge on animal intelligence has certainly come a long way. There was a time when animals were thought of as nothing more than biological automatons. However, with recent tests and discoveries, scientists have found that this belief could not be any more flawed. Animals, too, can possess impressive levels of intellect which aid them in their survival. The animals mentioned here are far from the only creatures which possess intellect in the animal kingdom. As science progresses, we will continue to learn more about how these creatures see the world around them and its challenges. For now, though, we can only wonder what goes on in the minds of these once misunderstood creatures.

[1] “Test reveals dogs’ jealous side .” (2008): BBC News. 08 Dec 2008.

[2] “The Wolf Pack.” Available from Internet; accessed 25 April 2011.

[3] “Learning Sets – Learning To Learn .” Worlf and Wildlife Available from Internet; accessed 25 April 2011.

[4] “Canine Intelligence: How Smart is your dog?.” Dogs Available from Internet; accessed 25 April 2011.

[5] Weiss, Jessica. “FAQ: Bottlenose Dolphins.” Field Trip

[6] “Behavioral Mimicry.” The Dolphin Available from Internet; accessed 25 April 2011.

[7] Adelson, Rachel. “Marine mammals master math.” 8, no. 36 (2005): 22. American Psychological

[8] “Pointing Gestures.” The Dolphin Available from Internet; accessed 25 April 2011.

[9] “Tool Use.” Jane Available from Internet; accessed 26 April 2011.

[10] Walker, Matt. “Chimps use cleavers and anvils as tools to chop food .” Available from Internet; accessed 26 April 2011.

[11] “ISU anthropologist’s study is first to report chimps hunting with tools.” (2007): 22 Feb 2007.

[12] Allen, G. R., Gardner, B. T. (1980). “Comparative psychology and language acquisition”. In Thomas A. Sebok and Jean-Umiker-Sebok (eds.). Speaking of Apes: A Critical Anthology of Two-Way Communication with Man. New York: Plenum Press. pp. 287–329.

[13] Fouts, Roger S. (2008). “Foreword”. In McMillan, Franklin D.. Mental Health and Well-Being in Animals. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 15–17.

[14] Hillix, William A. & Rumbaugh, Duane P. (2004). Animal bodies, human minds: ape, dolphin, and parrot language skills. Springer. pp. 71–72.

[15] Donovan, James M. & Anderson, H. Edwin (2006). Anthropology & Law. Berghahn Books. p. 190.

[16] Ritter, Malcolm. “Young Chimp Outscores College Students in Memory Test.” (2007): National 03 Dec 2007.

[17] Hart, B.L.; L.A. Hart, M. McCoy, C.R. Sarath (November 2001). “Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants: use and modification of branches for fly switching”. Animal Behaviour (Academic Press) 62 (5): 839–847. doi:10.1006/anbe.2001.1815. Retrieved 2011-04-26.

[18] “Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task.”

[19] “Why elephants don’t forget.” (2001): 19 Apr 2001.

[20] Holdrege, Craig (Spring 2001). “Elephantine Intelligence”. In Context (The Nature Institute) (5). Retrieved 2011-04-26.

[21] Poole, Joyce (1996). Coming of Age with Elephants. Chicago, Illinois: Trafalgar Square. pp. 131–133, 143–144, 155–157. ISBN 034059179X.

[22] Owen, James. “Elephants Can Mimic Traffic, Other Noises, Study Says.” (2005): National 19 Apr 2001.

[23] Ibid

[24] “Elephant Emotions.” Available from Internet; accessed 26 April 2011.

[25] Ibid

[26] Davies, Gareth Huw. “Bird Brains.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 April 2011.

[27] Winkler, Robert. “Crow Makes Wire Hook to Get Food.” (2002): National 08 Aug 2002.

[28] “Kea.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 April 2011.

[29] “New Zealand’s Mischievous Kea Parrot.” (2008): 20 Nov 2008.

[30] Davies, Gareth Huw. “Bird Brains.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 April 2011.

[31] Morrell, Virginia. “Animal Minds.” (2008): National Mar 2008.

[32] “Alex the African Grey.” (2007): The 20 Sep 2007.

[33] Scigliano, Eric. “Through the Eye of an Octopus.” (2003): Discover 01 Oct 2003.

[34] Morelle, Rebecca. “Octopus snatches coconut and runs.” (2009): 14 Dec 2009.

[35] Scigliano, Eric. “Through the Eye of an Octopus.” (2003): Discover 01 Oct 2003.

[36] Stewart, Doug. “Armed But Not Dangerous .” (1997): National Wildlife 01 Feb 1997.

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On April 28, 2011
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One Response to Animal Cognition: How Smart Are Animals?

  1. By the middle of the article, my mind WAS BLOWN.
    I had no idea about all that stuff with the octoputus (well, the whole article basically)
    I loved that part about the chimpanzee(orangutang, monkey? I forget) and sign language. It was so nice!

    I liked this one better, mostly because it seems more understandable.

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