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8 Smart Species Challenge How We Think of Animals

8 Smart Species Challenge How We Think of Animals

Animals are smarter than we thought.

This matters not just because it’s cool and fascinating. It matters because people use lack of intelligence as the reason to treat humans and non-human animals differently. It’s okay to eat animals and experiment on them, the rationale goes, because they are just dumb animals.

Science is biting itself in the butt on this one by continually discovering that animals aren’t so different from us after all, which will make it harder to justify experimenting on them.

These are some of the smartest animals in no particular order:

1. Dolphins

These thinkers have been named the second smartest species, after us, of course. They “co-operate with military precision to round up shoals of fish to eat.” They recognize themselves in mirrors. One dolphin was held captive for three weeks and was taught to tail-walk; after her release, “scientists were astonished to see the trick spreading among wild dolphins who had learnt it from the former captive.” They can learn “a rudimentary symbol-based language.” Dolphins “can solve difficult problems” and have “a high level of emotional sophistication.” Plus, they have really big brains. Things have gone so far that scientists have suggested “they are so bright that they should be treated as ‘non-human persons,’” protected from imprisonment in tanks, exploitation in amusement parks and slaughter.

When people can no longer point to a huge gap in intelligence between humans and other animals, it gets harder to justify torturing and using them.

Sergey Yeliseev/flickr

2. Ravens

Ravens have incredible recall for their friends’ voices. After living together for three years, then being separated for three years (during which time their calls may have changed), the ravens responded with friendly calls to recordings of the voices of their old friends.

They also remembered which birds they liked and which they didn’t. Recordings of the voices of ravens they didn’t care for elicited different reactions in deeper voices. They had yet a third reaction for the calls of birds they did not know.

Found Animals/flickr

3. Grey Parrots

Grey parrots can reason as well as three-year-old humans, as Mindy Townsend has written on Care2. When presented with two canisters and shown that one was empty, then “given the chance to choose one or the other,” they reliably picked the other one. Scientists performed more complicated versions of this study with the same result. The birds were showing “abstract, inferential thinking” by figuring out that if one is empty, the other has food in it. Humans can’t do that before age three.


4. Squirrels

Yes, squirrels are smart. They “put on elaborate shows” in which they pretend they are hiding food “to thwart would-be thieves.” When squirrels saw human researchers stealing their peanuts, they faked hiding even more food. This deception involves planning and a concept of what is happening in others’ minds — the squirrels are thinking about what may happen in the future (theft of their food), and about what observers are seeing and deducing (that there will be food where the squirrel is digging).

So there to all the squirrel haters, and especially to the wing nuts who held the “Hazard County Squirrel Slam” last weekend in upstate New York, where they awarded prizes for shooting and killing squirrels.

Mr. Wright/flickr

5. Elephants

Of course elephants have to be on any list of smart animals. They have proved their intelligence time and again. But here is one you may not have heard: they can sniff out the scents “of up to 30 absent members of their family” and build a mental map of where they are. Can you keep track of where 30 of your relatives are at any given time?

David Shenfeld/flickr

6. Chimpanzees

The latest revelation: chimpanzees have better short-term memory than humans. Not just good short-term memory. Not even just as good as ours. Better. They have a stronger mental ability than humans do.

The study, reported in Huff Post Science, flashed the numbers 1 through 9 randomly on a screen. Chimpanzee Ayumu “was able to recall the exact sequence and location of each number.”

When researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa showed a video of the experiment “to a room of scientists and journalists, murmurs of amazement were heard. ‘Don’t worry, nobody can do it,’ Matsuzawa said… ‘It’s impossible for you.’”

Chimp Ayumu has also learned the numbers 1 through 19 and what order they go in.

Stephen and Claire Farnsworth/flickr

7. Pigs

Pigs can learn to use a joystick to move a cursor to a target and can distinguish among a child’s various scribblings. Their intelligence is akin to that of chimpanzees. Comparing them to humans doesn’t come out that well for us: “even piglets only a few hours old will leave the nest to relieve themselves.” How long were your kids in diapers?


8. Crows

According to National Geographic, research now suggests that crows “share with humans several hallmarks of higher intelligence, including tool use and sophisticated social behavior.” Crows play tricks on each other, and different families have their own dialects. A nature writer describing one experiment on the birds writes that they are “in a class with us as toolmakers,” better even than chimps.


There is more going on behind animals’ eyes than we have given them credit for. Having learned more about their mental and social intelligence, it is time to reevaluate how we treat them.


Related Stories:

6 Species Proving Humans Aren’t the Only Intelligent Ones on the Planet

Grey Parrots Are Smarter Than Your Toddler

Elephants Ace Intelligence Test


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12:13AM PDT on Aug 2, 2014

Add the Kea (an alpine parrot in New Zealand) to that list. There are several videos about them on YouTube. Try:

12:54PM PDT on Apr 18, 2014

Who knows? One day intelligence might even be found in man. Thanks a lot for sharing!

7:59AM PDT on May 18, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

5:10AM PDT on Apr 26, 2013

Lovely article. Thanks for sharing.

4:59AM PDT on Apr 16, 2013


7:20PM PDT on Apr 6, 2013

Thank you for sharing, wonderful article and great pictures!

12:56PM PDT on Mar 25, 2013

thanks for sharing :)

9:18AM PDT on Mar 16, 2013

I answered "no". Not sure what eating or not eating an animal has to do with its intelligence tho. Surely that's more a question of compassion and of the conviction that all beings deserve to live!

11:47PM PDT on Mar 10, 2013

I always knew that animals are smart. I don't know how some people say that they aren't or compare them to machines.

1:52PM PDT on Mar 10, 2013

At the current accelerating rate of humanity's pyschotic destructive behavior and virus-like breeding, it's a certainty that humans will go extinct, the question is when. I'd give it less than a hundred and fifty years before the earth's biosphere goes over the edge and starts to rapidly die from it's atmosphere, lands and waters being decimated irreversibly poisoned. The only reason that oxygen and a land biosphere even exists for humans to steal and pillage is from the work of two billion years of microscopic organisms exchanging deadly carbon dioxide saturating the atmosphere for life supporting oxygen, and the higher evolved animals and plants continuing to share in keeping that ecosystem viable, as opposed to this alien thing called humanity which from a mindless greedy obsession only steals from the earth and causes suffering, death and destruction. Only in the last few hundred years has earth really suffered from this overpopulated virus thing called humanity. The earth will take close to ten million years to rid itself the majority of human toxic crap (unless the humans go berserk in their dying convulsions and turn the earth into a moon) and possible 50 million years before earth can return to looking like its former glory of a balanced and thriving natural ecosphere. A pity though for life to have to endure the time of great human caused suffering and death, and mass extinctions brought on entirely by the suicidal and genocidal human invader.

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