We humans love to think that we’re the sharpest tools in the shed, having invented indispensable items like Chia Pets, turducken, and 8-track cassettes. But there are also some serious brains in the animal kingdom. Some otherwise spineless blobs and our most unassuming neighbors back some pretty serious mental ability. Here are some of the MENSAs of the animal world.
OctopusPeter Godfrey Smith, a diver and professor, likened meeting an Octopus to meeting an intelligent alien. Octopi pack some serious brainpower, and one in a German aquarium famous for doing a better job of picking World Cup winners than sports experts. Octopi are slow and lack sharp teeth, claws, armor, and spines which would help them defend themselves. So they survive by their wits—using their camouflage ability to mimic shapes and colors around them, and their squishiness to maneuver themselves into narrow crevices for protection or find food. Aquarium keepers share stories of octopuses that have snuck out of their cage at night to steal crabs from other tanks that recognize particular people that feed them, and that routinely solve puzzles to get to their food. They use tools—a blanket octopus rips poisonous tentacles off of jellyfish and wields it like a sword. An odd fact—the neural storage in octopuses also seems to be in their 8 arms, as well as their brain.
CrowsCombining some serious brainpower with complex social structures, crows thrive in urban and wild areas alike. John Marzluff’s studies of Seattle’s crows revealed that they recognize and remember faces: after catching a number of crows and fixing them with radio transmitters, he found himself dive-bombed whenever he walked across the UW campus. He believes crows also distinguish between friend, foe, and neutral humans and convey that information to other crows. Crows have learned to use car traffic to crush nuts for easy snacks, read traffic signals and crosswalks, and learn individual people’s names. They also communicated that information to their brethren. Having long since solved the easy problems about how to survive and find food, they now have that most dangerous of things: free time. Like the smart kid not challenged in school, they spend time messing around and getting into trouble.
SquirrelsIt’s easy to think that squirrels make their way in the world by being acrobatic and adept climbers. But they have two things that are clearly hallmarks for animal intelligence: memory and abstract thinking. Memory is more obvious: we know squirrels bury nuts, and remember both their caches and good sources of food from year to year. Abstract thinking comes in with how they actively deceive each other. They’ll happily steal from each other’s caches. To deter thieves, squirrels will rebury nuts over and over. If they sense they are being watched by a competitor, they’ll pretend to bury a nut and then stash it somewhere else when alone: tactical deception previously thought to be exclusive to primates.
OrcasSporting the second-biggest brains among marine mammals, and a brain-to-body weight ratio similar to chimpanzees, orcas are clearly very bright. They have languages with different dialects, complex social structures, teach and learn from each other, complex knowledge about places, people, and hunting techniques passed down through generations—and all these things can differ among different populations. Studies of orca and human brains may indicate that orca may even be processing a wider range of emotions than humans. With an intelligence clearly ranking very high in the animal kingdom, they may just be a pair of opposable thumbs away from world domination.
RaccoonsLike crows, raccoons are generalists who benefit from the presence of humans. Anyone who’s ever tried to keep a raccoon away from their garbage know they’re dexterous, persistent, and good at problem-solving. How much of their problem solving is due to those dexterous hands or their brains is open to debate. One thing is clear—city raccoons are cleverer than their rural cousins. Studies of Toronto’s garbage-raiding raccoons reveal a series of systematic approaches to various kinds of garbage can lids, which the raccoons learned to recognize and went straight to a strategy that worked on that particular design. The more complex latches, lids, and contraptions we come up with, the smarter the raccoons will become as time goes on.
You probably don’t even know what a cuttlefish is. We’ll, their cephalopods, related to squid and the chambered nautilus, and they live in tropical and subtropical seas in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Like octopi, they are soft, defenseless, and rely on camouflage and their ability to rapidly change color and blend in. Like the Orca, it’s brain to body size is huge, they navigate and remember mazes, and are much more social learners than their solitary octopus cousins. Like squirrels, they show a calculated intent to deceive: males wooing a lady will show female patterns on the other side of its color-changeable skin, to convince other males that it’s really a female and not a rival.
Next time you’re wandering around the animal world, remember that just because you’re a human doesn’t mean you’re that smart. That crow watching you is probably thinking “What a tool. He’s been feeding me and housing me for months and doesn’t even know it.” He’s probably bored, so try and tell him something interesting.