Which animal has spectacular abilities?

Smarter, Smarter, Smartest - Animal Intelligence

More and more specialist publications show that animals are capable of special intelligence. How these skills developed is still unclear. It is possible that social life promoted intelligence.

Highly educated model pupils such as the 36-year-old gorilla lady Koko or the African gray parrot, who recently died at the age of 31, continue to amaze the world with their communicative - and intellectual - abilities.¹ The gorilla should draw from a vocabulary of over 1000 words. The parrot could count, name colors, shapes and objects, had a concept of “zero” and used simple sentences like “I want. . . ». There are also examples of special intelligence abilities from wild animals - although they use their intellectual capacities more practically. New studies show that humans are not the only intelligent creatures on earth. It is not yet known which factors have contributed to the development of particularly cognitively efficient brains. Various approaches are used here to explain.


In 1960, in what is now the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Jane Goodall observed the chimpanzee David Greybeard doing an unusual activity: she found he had fished for termites with a blade of grass. Not long afterwards it turned out that the chimpanzees not only used such simple tools, but even made them themselves, for example by removing leaves from branches. Before these observations, it was assumed that only humans could do this. Dozens of such examples are known to date from the great apes alone; entire tool cultures are known. New Caledonian crows are also extremely talented "craftsmen" who make tools from leaves and thorns, with the help of which they pull hidden delicacies from cracks or crevices. Aids are even used in the sea: Bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay in Western Australia use sponges to rummage for food with them on the ground.

Most of the evidence of very special cognitive abilities, however, is still obtained from primates. Part of the reason for this is that most of the research focused on primates, explains Klaus Zuberbühler of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Primates are also particularly capable in this area. In particular, the crows and other corvids mentioned have also shown themselves to be very “intellectually” gifted in studies in the laboratory and in the field. And there are also clear indications of special cognitive abilities of elephants and dolphins - studies suggest, for example, that elephants and bottlenose dolphins recognize their reflection, which is considered a great intelligence. Most of the time, the cognitive performance of animals is less spectacular, but it is quite broad. They can be found among other things in fish, birds and a wide variety of mammals. According to experts, we now know several “intelligence peaks”; In addition to primates (with humans as the super brain), these include corvids and parrots, dolphins and elephants.

Volatile feed

A wide variety of factors have been or are being promoted as important for the development of intelligence. This includes a long youth or specialization in particularly high-energy food that provides enough energy for the “additional performance” of the brain. Carel van Schaik from the University of Zurich, on the other hand, considers social learning to be the crux of the development of intelligence. It enables animals to acquire knowledge in a much shorter time than if they had to find out everything through trial and error, explains the researcher. This accelerates the development of intelligence, because every additional “ounce of intelligence” can be used to the maximum.

At the moment, experts say, there are mainly two theses under discussion, the hypotheses of social and ecological intelligence. The latter is based on the idea that special environmental conditions or specializations have meant that certain species had to solve more difficult tasks in their environment than others. For example, if an animal eats grass, its foraging for food is likely to be easier than that of an animal that mainly feeds on fruit. Fruits are often only ripe at certain times, the trees or bushes on which they can be found are spread out over a large area - a fruit eater should therefore be able to remember where in his area which "fruit trees" are and in which state of maturity whose fruits are and how long they still need to be ready to eat. In fact, some fruit-eaters appear to be able to do this - and much more.

Weather good, figs ripe

Zuberbühler and his colleagues concluded from a study that some primates also look for food based on the weather of the previous days. The scientists observed a group of mantle specimens that belong to the monkey-like species for 210 days. In doing so, they found that the animals visited fig trees, which they knew were bearing ripening fruits, much more frequently after a few particularly hot days than under normal “weather conditions”. Apparently the animals are able to estimate the influence of the past weather on the condition of the figs - and thus possibly also able to anticipate events in the future. The team had already shown in an earlier study that the mangabians know where fruiting trees can be found in their territory.

But the hypothesis of ecological intelligence does not only apply to primates. Western bush jays, for example, which are considered to be very intelligent corvids, create hiding places for food. However, they have to find them again, which is difficult in itself. However, as Nicola Clayton and Tony Dickinson from the University of Cambridge in England report, they were also able to take into account the shelf life of the hidden food in experiments. So they also collected peanuts that were more durable, but less loved, and not only preferred but perishable insects. They also removed the supplies in the correct order. Many carnivores are also characterized by special cognitive abilities - in the light of this thesis not surprising when you consider that carnivores are dependent on volatile food that cannot be found everywhere, which in turn tries intensively to avoid being eaten.

The second major hypothesis for developing cognitive skills is the social intelligence hypothesis. It says that it is maneuvering in complex social communities that drives the development of intelligence. One point of discussion is, among other things, whether such a “general” or an exclusively “social” intelligence emerges. According to Zuberbühler, it is based on the thesis of the “social brain” that living in a larger group offers advantages such as better protection from enemies, but also has disadvantages. After all, you live very closely with your strongest competitors, for example in the area of ​​food or sexual partners. It is therefore an advantage to be familiar with your group and to be armed against social problems that arise from community life. This means closed, individualized groups, explains the researcher, which are made up of several male and female members and in which the individual individuals know each other personally - in contrast to the huge, largely anonymous herds of wildebeest in Africa.

Indeed, there is evidence from many animals that they are very good at handling the pitfalls - and benefits - of living in close communities. Various studies have shown, for example, that many primates know exactly how the members of their group relate to one another - and to themselves - in terms of rank and degree of relationship. And they are evidently able to use this knowledge. For example, chimpanzees that are threatened by a higher-ranking conspecific scream in different ways depending on the severity of the attack and thus - in the tropical forest, which is difficult to see - also pass on information about the collision. Zuberbühler and his colleague Katie Slocombe now examined whether the victim's screams changed depending on the audience - and they found what they were looking for, as they describe in a study that has just been published.

The chimpanzees showed a tendency to “exaggerate” the strength of the attack in their screams when they screamed violently if they knew a listener nearby who was of a higher rank than the attacker. In fact, the “fraudsters” succeeded in recruiting help in some of the cases examined. According to the researchers, this suggests that the animals not only knew about the ranking in their group, but that they may also consciously use this knowledge to “cheat”. There are also indications of the Western Bush jays mentioned above that the animals can empathize with conspecifics and anticipate their behavior. If they are observed in experiments by other jays while they are building up their food supplies, they look for places where they can hide, such as poorly lit places that are as difficult to see as possible, as Clayton and Nathan Emery from the University of Cambridge have observed. Or they move the food somewhere else in unobserved moments - but both only if they have already plundered the food hiding place of a conspecific themselves.

Social intelligence in hyenas

However, the hypothesis of the “social brain” is not the sole explanation for the development of intelligence, as Kay Holekamp from Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan emphasizes. She studies spotted hyenas in Kenya. They lived, she explains, in a social system that corresponds to that of the monkeys, which include baboons and mangabians, among others. As with these, the group members recognize each other individually, apparently remember them for years, know about the place of others in the hierarchy and recognize their relationship. They work together successfully in hunting and defending the territory. But overall, they are much less flexible in their behavior than the monkeys, says the scientist. This shows that there must be other factors that underlie the development of intelligence - an opinion that other researchers share. Andrew Whiten from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, one of the fathers of the “social brain” thesis, believes that this and the hypothesis of ecological intelligence are not mutually exclusive. The next, admittedly extremely difficult step, says Holekamp, ​​should now be to identify the various factors and combine them in a single thesis.