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Animal Intelligence

What is going on inside the minds of animals? Even the idea of animals having minds is a topic of heated debate in the scientific community. The ability to define and measure a mind has been a difficult task even in humans, and it's even more difficult to interpret the mind of an animal without comparing it to our own. But as ecologist Carl Safina said in his book Beyond Words, “only humans have human minds, but believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons”. That is to say, it would be correct to assume that animals don’t have minds like humans, but it would be incorrect to assume that all animals don’t have minds at all. There is plenty of evidence to support that there is something going on up in their heads. So what are some signs of this intelligence in animals? Let’s get into it!

Above drawing by @hannaasfour_art

Let's start with a bee. Probably not where you thought this was going to begin. It has been known for a long time that bees can navigate by the sun. It's the basis of their well-known waggle dance which is how they tell each other where to go to find food. But research has found that bees use cognitive maps to navigate their environment as well, which was thought to be a mammal ability. This means that they use a mental image of the landmarks in their environment to find their way home. Humans do this too! If you’ve ever gone on a long car ride and you know that you have to turn left at the big tree or turn right when you see the yellow house, then you've used your cognitive map. It turns out bees are using the same technique!

While researching the famous problem-solving skills of crows, researchers discovered they were even more intelligent than we initially thought. While looking at the ability of New Caledonian Crows use tools to retrieve food out of reach, one crow learned that if she brought the cork that the food was tied to back to the researcher after she ate, the study would be set up again faster which would lead to her getting her next snack sooner. Inspired by this demonstration of causal reasoning, the researchers developed a new study to see if the birds could recognize the causes of certain stimuli. In the first part, the crows watched a human go behind a hide and poke a stick out into the area where there was a box with food in it. After that the birds had no reservations about retrieving the food. In the second part, the birds were unable to see what the cause of the stick poking out into their foraging area was. When they went to retrieve the food, they were much more cautious and sometimes they went to investigate what the cause of the stick movement was instead of retrieving the food. This shows the crows were able to recognize that the humans were the cause of the stick movement and understood that they didn’t pose a threat to their foraging.

Above photo by @ckh_photographs

Not all forms of intelligence are good. Birds have a complex language filled with various calls that convey different messages. Alarm calls are used to warn others of incoming danger from hawks or other predators. But when no danger is present, birds fill the air with their songs and companion calls used to attract and keep track of one another. But some birds have learned to take advantage of this system. The Great Tit is a small bird similar the size of a sparrow, but they are smart enough to fool each other for food. When birds are on a feeder, Great tits have been known to send off alarm calls to scare the other birds away, allowing them to have full access to the seed buffet. Blue jays copy hawk calls to scare away birds and roosters even pretend to find food to lure the ladies over. It seems we can’t always trust our feathered friends.

For decades the mirror test has been a defining tool in the identification of animals with self-awareness. The idea goes that if you put a mark on an animal and then put them in front of a mirror, if they try to touch or scratch or manipulate the mark in any way on themselves then they can be identified as self-aware. But this test is very human centric, and it doesn’t really demonstrate the ability to differentiate self from the environment. If an animal was unable to recognize self then we would see them biting their own legs. Even our cells can recognize self from foreign pathogens. When it comes to mirrors, many animals don’t understand the concept of a reflection, so they don’t recognize that the image they are seeing is a representation of themself. Dogs can recognize a reflection of a human in a mirror, but they think that is the real human, so they don’t always turn around to see the real human behind them. When it comes to animals that try to manipulate the smudges on their bodies they see in the mirror, this shows that they can recognize reflections as a representation of themselves. Animals that can do this include apes, elephants and dolphins, and they exhibit similar behaviors when they realize they’re looking at themselves. They do exaggerated movements, like waving around limbs or flipping around, and then they like to look at the hard to see areas of their bodies like inside their mouths, their butts, and blowholes in the case of dolphins.

So what is going on in the mind of an animal? Honestly, it's probably difficult to say. But to say that they don’t have minds because they are different from ours is like saying that animals can’t see because they don’t have human eyes. Animals see in many different ways and perhaps their minds are just as diverse. There is plenty of evidence to show that animals are thinking about their environments, the causes of stimuli, the minds of others and how to fool them, and sometimes even recognizing representations of themselves. We all experience the world in our own unique way.




“The Genius of Birds” By Jennifer Ackerman (pg 87-89)

Great Tits (and other birds):

“The Inner Lives of Animals” by Peter Wohlleben (pg 50-51)

Self Recognition

“Beyond Words” by Carl Safina (pg 273-279)

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