Why Animals Are Smarter Than You Think (And Why You Should Care)

Written by Jon Lieff, M.D.

It is time for us to understand that animals, even the very small ones, are conscious. They have feelings, they show empathy, and they display intelligence in ways that humans cannot. Even lobsters and crabs feel pain. Birds mourn when someone in their community passes. Bees apply geometry to build beehives.

Currently, neuroscience has not found any region in the human brain that is specific as a center for consciousness or subjective experience. Yet science has already shown that intelligence exists everywhere in animals with completely different brains (and even no brains as I'll explain soon).

Understanding that animals have significant inner lives might make us treat them with less cruelty. Perhaps we’d think twice before forcing them into captivity, competitions, or onto our dinner plate.

Most people know about the intelligent behavior of dolphins, primates, and therapy dogs. But, if we look at animals with much smaller brains, we find amazing capacities. By appreciating the intelligence of these creatures, perhaps we could all become a little more compassionate.

Here are some things you probably didn’t know about animals:

1. Birds

With very small brains, birds are sometimes called “feathered apes” because of their many remarkable abilities. A cockatoo, for example, can use multi-step techniques to unlock a very complex puzzle. To retrieve a nut in a cage, the bird removed a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turned a wheel 90 degrees, and then shifted a latch sideways.

The birds in this study were untrained and able to figure it out in less than two hours. Others learned by watching. Also, once they were able to open it, they never forgot how and could do it immediately.

Birds aren’t just clever; they’re compassionate. Recently, an entire flock of jays were observed sitting in trees mourning a fallen comrade for 48 hours without any foraging. Songbirds name their offspring and are known by that sound for their entire life. Finches learn grammar by listening to mentors and use strict syntax rules.

Birds can also recognize their reflection in a mirror, construct tools, and learn skills from their elders. They can count, categorize objects by color and shape, and learn to understand human words.

Consider the gray parrot, Alex, famous for studies done by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a leader in the field of animal cognition. He understood zero, could add and count up to eight, and invented words such as “banerry” for apple—a combination of banana and cherry. Just before Alex died he told Dr. Pepperberg, “I love you. See you tomorrow.”

2. Lizards

The “reptilian brain” used to be synonymous with “stupid” because we assumed that reptiles used a less-developed part of the human brain. Turns out they have completely different brains than humans, with advanced capacities.

Reptiles recognize family and care for their children. They exhibit social learning, play behavior and cooperation. They build complex burrows that they use repeatedly and improve upon. Babies are very affectionate to each other, even choosing a leader and walking behind in a line. They protect each other from predators.

Anoles (in the lizard family) demonstrate advanced learning, counting, and problem solving rapidly. One study on anoles involved a wooden block with two wells, one empty and one with a worm. Each was covered by a cap in a different color. Anoles were able to identify the correct well and use an invented technique to open the cap. When they were wrong, they immediately reversed course and remembered it the next day.

3. Bees

Individual bees show extraordinary intelligence and abilities with a very small, unique, brain. Bees use a complex symbolic language to share locations, including angles related to the sun, travelling routes, and qualities of locations and individual flowers.

Bees find and bring back information using kaleidoscopic memory for five miles of scenes. They can find their way out of mazes and use abstract concepts, sequences, combinations, and each day solve advanced mathematical problems—finding efficient routes between many different quality stops. If a bee makes a bad choice, others don’t copy it. Bees also understand future rewards.

They can detect and distinguish different flowers by their electrical signals. (Yes, flowers and bees emit electrical charge: when bees land on a flower, it changes potential. Flowers combine the electrical information with bright colors, patterns and fragrance to attract bees.)

Bees can distinguish a dangerous fungus from a harmless one and expend tremendous effort to bring an antibiotic mixture when needed. When harmless fungus spores were placed in the hive, they physically removed them without using the antibiotic.

Bees are even able to build a honeycomb, which is a remarkable feat of engineering. It’s the most efficient and strongest way to store honey that has been conceived by human engineers. To make the honeycomb, special bees circle providing heat to melt semi molten wax. Each bee works in a tiny compartment next to each other, kneading and tamping the wax into place. The wax flows at a specific temperature with surface tension stretching the wax. The wax then pops up forming a point that becomes the angle of the hexagon. These fuse with other walls forming a perfect hexagon.

4. Amoeba

The smallest animal is the one-celled amoeba. Even without a brain, it has some remarkable capacities. When food is scarce, individual cells join together to form what looks like a multicellular animal. This slug, made of individual cells working together as one, crawls to a place with more food. There, the slug cells break apart into individual cells and the colony forms a new structure, looking like a plant with a stalk and a fruiting body.

The fruiting body separates from the stalk and either flies away or is carried by an animal’s foot to a new place. What’s incredible is that the individual cells that form the stalk sacrifice themselves for the community. Those in the fruiting body escape and start a new life somewhere else as individual cells.

It’s been shown that cells are more likely to join the stalk if they are members of the same family of cells going into the fruiting body. In other words: they are more altruistic in order to save their own family. The communication necessary for such actions is extraordinary. How can they do this? We don’t know. But it makes you wonder where empathy comes from.

So what do we know? Big brains are not necessarily better.

Even the smaller brained (and no-brained) animals demonstrate great intelligence and consciousness. Hopefully, humans will realize the tremendous value of unique animal brains with unique talents before they are all destroyed by human behavior.

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