Make a list of the world's smartest animals, and it's bound to include a few familiar faces. Chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants are always among the usual suspects. But the more scientists learn about animal intelligence, the more surprises about our fellow creatures they discover. Some animals are adept at creative problem solving, some display emotional intelligence, and still, others teach what they learn to their young. At least one primate can communicate about the past. And the smartest-animals-on-earth club includes a few unexpected members.
Our closest animal relatives, according to the latest research, have impressive intellectual skills. Orangutans are better than children at solving problems with tools they make themselves. In experiments, Orangutans consistently make fishing hooks to retrieved food more successfully than eight-year-olds. And they are the only non-human primates that can talk about past events to plan future actions — waiting to warn others of danger, for example, until it's safe to do so.
Chimpanzees are great imitators. Some researchers argue that they don’t create sentences in sign language, as was once thought, but pick up cues from their testers. Nevertheless, their own communication of lip smacks and sounds has rhythm, timing, and syntax similar to language. They make different tools for specific uses and teach each other, leading to distinct local toolmaking cultures in different regions. And they strategically cooperate when hunting or battling other troops.
If size matters, then dolphins are geniuses; their brains, as a percentage of their body mass, are among the biggest on the planet. They are the only non-human creatures that seem to have individual names that they choose themselves. Even more interestingly, dolphins understand much about us — including gestural language, pictures, and emotions — and yet we don’t really know much about them. Fifty years of research still can’t decode their communications of clicks and whistles or understand how their giant brains work.
Elephants, another big-brained species, are among the smartest animals on earth. Their intelligence is emotional. While male elephants go off in bachelor groups, herds of females and their daughters are loyal family groups that stay together for years. They cooperate, and they mourn their dead in an almost ritualistic way.
Before you tuck into your next BLT, consider this: pigs are smarter than most dogs. Puzzle-solving pigs understand reflections, finding food they have only seen in a mirror. You can more easily house train a small pig than a cat or a dog. And, despite their reputation for wallowing, they’re actually clean animals, only covering themselves in mud to cool off and protect their delicate skin from the sun.
Octopuses are among the more surprising animals on any list of the smartest on earth. Unusually for cephalopods, they have a nervous system partly compressed into a centralized brain. They can open mollusks using a choice of methods, can play with objects, and can pull apart filters and hoses in aquariums. The Coconut Shell octopus uses empty coconut shells for protection and shelter, hiding under or inside them.
Crows know how to take advantage of the modern world. Lots of birds drop shellfish from a height to break them open, but crows go one better. These smart avians drop them on roads, wait for cars to drive over and smash them and then swoop down to feast. Scientists have observed crows not only using tools but actually making them out of sticks and wire. And if you think you’ve heard a crow laughing at you, you probably have; like parrots, crows can imitate human sounds.
Dog owners know that their dogs understand more than simple commands. They also respond to how their owners feel and to language. Cognition researchers at Barnard and Yale agree that what makes dogs among the smartest animals on earth is the way they understand humans. Through evolution, breeding, and close contact, dogs are extremely responsive to gestures, eye movements, and tones of voice. Most adult dogs understand about as many words as a three-year-old.
Raccoons are determined and creative, especially at getting food. They don’t have opposable thumbs, but their delicate five-fingered hands are agile. In a University of Wyoming study, raccoons dropped rocks into a tube of water, raising the level to grab a floating marshmallow. Not all the study subjects were so patient. At least one of the little bandit-masked critters climbed on the device and rocked back and forth until it toppled, spilling the contents to release the marshmallow.
Food — hunting it and keeping it — turns the most unlikely animals into geniuses. In a famous Mission Impossible-themed video, a persistent squirrel overcomes a very difficult obstacle course to reach a bowl of nuts. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley are trying to determine how the campus wild squirrels decide which nuts to bury and which to eat at once. The animals stash their winter supplies in hundreds of caches, and the researchers still have not worked out how they choose the spots or find them later.
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