Animals are a lot smarter than they are given credit for. While they may not be able to speak, at least not the language we understand anyway, animals have exhibited remarkable intelligence time and again. Not only are animals known to express surprising empathy, but many also have displayed a great desire to learn and apply past experiences to present moments.
Here, we look at some lesser-known facts about animal intelligence that you are unlikely to have heard before.
Lemurs look innocent, but they can be quite cunning when it comes to food. Researchers at Duke University conducted an experiment in “social intelligence” among lemurs that live in large groups. The team studied individuals from six different breeds of lemurs and carried out three different tests on them.
In the first test, a lemur was allowed to come to a room where a man watched one plate with food along with the animal and another man faced away from both of them. In the second test, both men either faced toward or away from the plate. In the third and final test, both the men faced the plates, but had black bands tied across their eyes or mouths.
The tests showed that the lemurs who were members of species with large social groups were more likely to steal food behind a person’s back than those from smaller groups. This also indicated intricate social intelligence in primates evolved from living in large social groups.
They are tiny, but their brains work wonderfully well. Researchers have recently concluded that rats have greater episodic memory (the ability to recall a memory's context) than previously thought. A team at Indiana University found that these little animals can remember more than 30 events in a context. "This new work shows that rats remember many events - over 30 - and are likely able to remember many more using episodic memory,” says Jonathon Crystal, a professor in the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, who is also an author on this research work.
Furthermore, researchers at the International School for Advanced Studies have also revealed that rats have memories that store information used in little bits of very recent experience. Many scientists believe that rats don't have the brain centers known as "prefrontal cortex". They feel that rodents realize memory in a manner similar to humans. Further studies are now being conducted to completely understand how these mechanisms work.
That dogs are loyal is well-known. But do you know that dogs can remember us fondly and can recall our body odor even when we are not around?
A study published in the Behavioral Processes journal conducted a brain-imaging experiment of dogs while they responded to smells of other dogs and people. "It's one thing when you come home and your dog sees you and jumps on you and licks you and knows that good things are about to happen," project leader Gregory Berns said in a press release. "In our experiment, however, the scent donors were not physically present. That means the canine brain responses were being triggered by something distant in space and time,” he added.
The study involved 12 dogs of various breeds who were presented with five different scent samples. The samples included the smell of one familiar dog and one familiar human, as well as the smell of one unknown dog and one unknown human. Brain imaging revealed that the areas of the brain associated with emotion were most active to familiar humans, even more than familiar dogs. Thus, it was concluded that dogs remember us even when we are not around.
Elephants are emotional animals and are known to show empathy. But a study published in the journal PeerJ shows that the emotional depth of these gentle giants is way stronger than we have initially thought. According to the study, when elephants feel blue, they reassure each other by making sympathetic noises and reaching their trunks to the others' mouths.
The study was done on a group of 26 captive Asian elephants in Thailand. To upset the animals, the researchers made dogs walk by close to them and also placed snakes in the vicinity. "The consistency with which elephants responded to a friend in distress was quite remarkable. Rarely did an elephant give a distress call without a response from a friend or group member nearby,” said co-author of the study Joshua Plotnik.
It was observed that whenever the distress calls were made by a member of the herd, the other elephants reached out and tried to calm them, especially by using their trunks in the other elephant's mouth. Some of the other animals known to comfort peers are humans, great apes, dogs, and some birds.
Chimpanzees are known to imitate behaviors from others. However, new research shows that chimpanzees follow their own fashion trends. According to a study published in Animal Cognition, the copycat behavior of chimps helps them form new traditions that are often particular to only one specific group of these primates. An international group of scientists studied over 700 hours of video footage, shot over a year, of 94 chimpanzees living in four different social groups in a sanctuary. They found a female repeatedly sticking a straw-like piece of grass in one or both of her ears. In a short time, the other chimps of the group began imitating her behavior. In fact, even after the female chimp had died, a couple of animals continued putting grass in their ears.
It was thus deduced that some chimpanzees follow their traditions over long periods of time. They learn from one another and continue the behavior or trends they find useful. "This reflects chimpanzees' proclivity to actively investigate and learn from group members' behaviors in order to obtain biologically relevant information," says Edwin van Leeuwen of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands. "The fact that these behaviors can be arbitrary and outlast the originator speaks to the cultural potential of chimpanzees."
The lifespan of a fruit fly is usually less than 60 days. That is hardly any time to develop sophisticated mental capabilities. However, an Oxford University study has shown that fruit flies actually think before they act.
The neuroscientists from the university found fruit flies take longer to make more difficult decisions. Experiments were conducted where fruit flies were made to differentiate between closer concentrations of an odor. Curiously, the flies didn’t react instinctively or impulsively but took time to gather information before making a choice. When the odor concentrations were starkly different, the flies made quick decisions. However, when the concentrations were tougher to tell apart, the flies took a longer time to decide.
“What our findings show is that fruit flies have a surprising mental capacity that has previously been unrecognized,” says Professor Gero Miesenböck in whose laboratory the new research was performed.
In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists proved that wolves learn much better than dogs do. The scientists carefully studied 15 six months old mongrel dogs and 14 six months old wolves. Each animal was made to watch one of two situations in which a trained dog opened a wooden box with its mouth or paw to be rewarded with food afterward.
It was found that all the wolves were better at opening the box after they had watched a dog do it. Surprisingly, only four dogs managed to do the same task. The same experiment was repeated 9 months later to see if age had been a factor. The results, however, were the same.
The researchers thus concluded that wolves are more dependent on each other, and hence, the can imitate conspecifics better than dogs.