Animal Cognition, Intelligence & Cultural Behavior

Instructor: Meredith Mikell
Intelligence and culture are values frequently used to gauge the complexity and sentience of animals. Here we will examine the basics of animal cognition, how their intelligence is demonstrated, and examples of cultural behavior.

Defining Intelligence

Humans are very intelligent, this we know. The most intelligent of all animals on Earth, at least by the ways we measure intelligence. The more we learn about other animals' intelligence, and the more we try to define intelligence even among humans, the more we are amazed and befuddled by it! Human intelligence is generally measured by IQ, or intelligence quotient. This is measured by taking a series of tests. But, how do you make animals take IQ tests, so that we can measure their intelligence? We really can't, though we can measure their intelligence in other ways. These include assessing their sense of self-awareness, their capacity for problem solving, and even an anatomical measurement of their brain size and complexity. The presence of emotional behaviors among animals can also be an indicator of intelligence. Some scientists argue that this is too narrow of a definition of intelligence, based too closely on human attributes and adaptations. However intelligence is defined, it is, itself, an evolutionary adaptation for all animals, including humans, that is utilized in different ways based upon environment, physiology, and ecological roles.

Brain size is just one metric of measuring intelligence in animals.
brain size

Examples of Highly Intelligent Animals

Based on the metrics for measuring intelligence that we just described, particularly brain size, many animals come close to human intelligence. They include:

- Cetaceans, such as dolphins and whales

- Other high-order primates, such as chimpanzees and gorillas

- Elephants

Dolphins and other cetaceans are highly intelligent animals.

These are all large, complex mammals that we humans share a pretty significant genetic kinship with. However, brain size isn't necessarily everything. Animal behaviorists have also identified smaller, less complex species that exhibit high intelligence based on a more general definition of complexity and problem solving. They include:

- Bees and ants, for their complex and dynamic social structures

- Crows and ravens, for their incredible problem solving and social cohesion

- The octopus, for their keen and often cheeky problem-solving skills

Bees are considered intelligent on the basis of their complex social behaviors.

Others who might be 'runner ups' on the list include pigs, dogs, rats, raccoon, squirrels, and even cows (yes, cows!) Many of these animals make the list because they frequently interact with humans, and therefore, we can regularly observe evidence of their intelligence. But, let us not forget that there are many other species - some undiscovered - that we are not frequently exposed to, and so don't recognize for their intelligence.

Demonstrating Intelligence

Animal behaviorists can put several of these animal species through a series of tests to gauge their intelligence. Rats, for example, are put through mazes and obstacles in various orders and sequences, repeatedly, to see how well they remember how to navigate. A study on New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) revealed that they not only engage in tool usage, but also in tool modification, bending and changing twigs used to reach for insects inside tree and rock cracks. Tool modification is a particularly stunning example of intelligence, demonstrating their capacity for forethought. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops trancatus) have displayed basic language comprehension by differentiating the order of words in commands given by their trainers, and have demonstrated self-recognition in mirror tests. Other primates can interpret and even use human languages too; a particularly famous gorilla named Koko was successfully taught American Sign Language, and uses it to communicate back to her handlers!

A bonobo uses a tool to collect insects. Tool usage is one metric of intelligence.
bonobo tool

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