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The surprising facts about animal intelligence

Pigs are smart. Really smart. So are goats. And crows. In fact, it turns out a lot of animals are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. Bees, for example, are highly organized, but they can also count, recognize complex patterns, and communicate the exact position of a flower to the rest of the hive. These are just a few of the many examples of animal intelligence. Some animals can even give us a run for our money, at least if we challenge them in how they think best.

Intelligence can be found in some pretty unlikely places

We don’t often give pigs the credit they deserve. Sure, they’re tasty with a side of eggs, but not many of us would call them “smart.” It may have something to do with the fact that they prefer to live in filth, but we tend to vastly underestimate their intelligence. It turns out, E.B. White’s Wilbur wasn’t a fluke. A full-grown pig, for instance, has the intelligence of a three-year-old human child, making them smarter than other domesticated animals like dogs and cats. Candace Croney, a professor of animal science at Purdue University, even managed to teach a pig to play simple video games.

And pigs aren’t the only barnyard animals with a high I.Q. They may not seem it: the average goat at the petting zoo will not only eat the food you feed it from a paper cup but eat the cup as well if you’re not careful. But Researchers in Australia recently put goat smarts to the test and discovered that they were able to learn a complex, two-step process for obtaining food. In addition, they learned the process quickly, after only four or five lessons, and could still remember how to do it up to a month later, with no additional lessons.

Another unlikely candidate for Mensa is the crow. Crows, like goats, possess an excellent memory, especially for faces, and are capable of recognizing other members of their species and sometimes particular humans. Some scientists believe crows may be as smart as apes, capable of solving problems and even making tools.

And while we might be tempted to dismiss the lowly rat when it comes to brains, if we stop and think about it, it’s obvious they have more than average intelligence. After all, they are quite adept at finding their way through mazes, to say nothing of their ability to delicately remove pieces of cheese from all those traps we futilely place around our garages. Rats even dream, much like humans, and they are sometimes willing to sacrifice their own lives for other rats.

Some animals have special kinds of intelligence

But many animals have impressive skills in specialized areas. Some of these we know. It’s hard to deny, for instance, the parrot’s ability to imitate and communicate with humans. They too possess impressive memories, useful since some species can live up to 75 years. And that memory helps them solve complex problems.

Elephants possess long memories, which is where the phrase “an elephant never forgets” comes from. But elephants are especially social animals as well, capable of expressing a broad range of emotions, from compassion to grief, and of performing acts of altruism not only towards other elephants but towards other species as well. Humans should be so well-evolved.

And most of us know dolphins are extremely intelligent. Among other marks of their I.Q., they are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, something rare in the animal kingdom. They also possess strong communication skills and, because of their distinctive high-pitched call, are adept at sensing danger and then passing that information to others dolphins.

Yeah, but are they smarter than us?

In some cases, an animal’s unique form of intelligence rivals our own abilities. The elephant’s memory, for instance, is greater than ours. And chimpanzees seem to possess a kind of photographic memory stronger than our own. In a 2007 study, researchers tested chimpanzees against humans in remembering where numbers were on a touchscreen monitor. The chimps bested the humans every time, recalling locations that were shown to them for less than a second.

In another test pitting humans against crows, researchers discovered that crows unravel puzzles better than humans. They also have a better understanding of water displacement better than eight-year-old children. Given a toy or treat floating on water located down a narrow tube, the typical child can’t work out how to retrieve the toy. The crow will begin dropping pebbles in to raise the water level.

So who’s the smartest of them all

It turns out it’s hard to decide just who has the most smarts in the animal world. That’s because intelligence doesn’t just mean one thing. Different researchers have identified a number of different kinds of intelligence, with some suggesting there are three, others seven, and some even nine. Howard Gardner, for example, a professor of education at Harvard University, lists linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, even musical intelligence. Researchers have recognized for several decades now that possessing one sort of intelligence over another doesn’t make you more or less smart than someone with strengths in another form of intelligence.

Could this same principle be applied across the animal kingdom as well? That is, perhaps humans possess strengths in a few very particular sorts of intelligence but does that necessarily make us “the smartest”? We may, for instance, have the strongest forms of linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, but can we compete with an octopus when it comes to bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, or an elephant when it comes to social intelligence and compassion?

Too often we like to think of ourselves as above nature, gods given control over all that we can see. Yet we as a species are plagued by division. We’ve invented devices that could easily destroy us all. And despite these facts, we still insist we’re the smartest species. That in itself may call our intelligence into question.