January 4, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Animals Can Be Smarter Than You Think

Here are four organisms with surprising mental powers.


A video clip at the start of a Washington Post article shows bumblebees trained to pull on a string to get a treat. Other bees, watching one do it, appear able to learn the secret. The one-minute video, often shared on Facebook, is well worth watching. Ben Guarino writes with astonishment:

The bumblebee brain is puny, at least compared with the massive and fatty organ locked in your skull. At about 0.0002 percent the volume of yours, bee brains are close in size to the seeds stuck on a hamburger bun. Thinking about insect brains in terms of size alone, however, is a trap. The intelligence of sesame-brained bugs should not be underestimated.

A study reported in the journal PLOS Biology on Tuesday [10/04/16], for instance, takes bee smarts in a surprising direction: Scientists from the Queen Mary University of London suggest that the “insects possess the essential cognitive elements for cultural transmission,” as they wrote in their new paper. It is possible to teach a single bee a new trick, in other words, and a different bee can learn that behavior from her peer.


You’ve probably seen a swarm of bats blackening the sky at dusk as they emerge from a cave. Flying so close to one another, how do they avoid utter confusion as they utter clicks for echolocation? The interference would seem hopelessly confusing to them. An article from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology looked into this “question [that] has mystified scientists since the discovery of echolocation.” One thing the bats know to do is reduce their call volume in such conditions, a behavior called mutual suppression. Clever experiments at Texas A&M showed how bats demonstrated their smarts in an acoustic room rigged with “robobats” and a clutter of strings equipped with sensors. The researchers found that the collision-avoidance strategy is apparently hard-wired into the bats’ brains, since each individual behaved the same way.

The press release concludes on a biomimetics note, with gratitude:

Interestingly, Adams’s findings could be useful for improving wireless telecommunication networks. In a wireless network, information is sent from multiple computers simultaneously without much interference. Adams says, “You stop and listen for a second and go again. It’s the same thing we’re seeing with the bats.” The team’s future research will determine how bats handle interference from multiple individuals, which may shed light on how to develop better wireless networks.

We have a lot of reasons to be thankful for bats. Who knows? We may soon be thanking bats for more efficient wireless communication.


Because the face of a clucking hen does not exactly induce thoughts of genius, this headline from science publisher Springer is bound to turn heads: “Think chicken – think intelligent, caring and complex.” Maybe you are assuming that if you eat the chicken, it will help you in those ways. Thou assumest wrongly. According to an expert in “chicken psychology,” chickens have a lot in common with us.

Chickens are not as clueless or “bird-brained” as people believe them to be. They have distinct personalities and can outmaneuver one another. They know their place in the pecking order, and can reason by deduction, which is an ability that humans develop by the age of seven. Chicken intelligence is therefore unnecessarily underestimated and overshadowed by other avian groups. So says Lori Marino, senior scientist for The Someone Project, a joint venture of Farm Sanctuary and the  Kimmela Center in the USA, who reviewed the latest research about the psychology, behavior and emotions of the world’s most abundant domestic animal. Her review is published in Springer’s journal Animal Cognition.

“They are perceived as lacking most of the psychological characteristics we recognize in other intelligent animals and are typically thought of as possessing a low level of intelligence compared with other animals,” Marino says. “The very idea of chicken psychology is strange to most people.

OK, Dr. Marino, prove it. She shows how chickens have a sense of numbers, even as newly hatched chicks. They can perform simple arithmetic, experiments have shown. They can remember the trajectory of a ball for up to three minutes. They “possess self-control when it comes to holding out for a better food reward,” the list continues. The article rubs it in:

Chicken communication is also quite complex, and consists of a large repertoire of different visual displays and at least 24 distinct vocalizations. The birds possess the complex ability of referential communication, which involves signals such as calls, displays and whistles to convey information. They may use this to sound the alarm when there is danger, for instance. This ability requires some level of self-awareness and being able to take the perspective of another animal, and is also possessed by highly intelligent and social species, including primates.

Chickens perceive time intervals and can anticipate future events. Like many other animals, they demonstrate their cognitive complexity when placed in social situations requiring them to solve problems.

In addition, they display complex emotions. If you’ve ever watched a mother hen protecting her chicks, you know how aggressive she can be. “They make decisions based on what is best for them,” the article says, even stooping to deception or learning one another’s secrets (just like the bumblebees described above). Convinced? Reflecting on all this makes it hard to want to eat them. At least pay that bird a little more respect when you chew the chicken fat.

Slime Molds

We end with one of the most surprising examples of braininess: intelligence without a brain. Stephanie Pappas writes about slime mold intelligence for Live Science, claiming, “This Brainless Blob Learns — and Teaches, Too.” It may be difficult doing a mind meld with a slime mold without getting sticky, but scientists are impressed with what these colonial fungi can do.

You don’t need a brain to learn and teach. New research finds that slime molds, goopy and rather uncharismatic organisms that lack a nervous system, can adapt to a repulsive stimulus and then pass on that adaptation by fusing with one another.

Whether this shows that “learning may predate the evolution of the nervous system” seems debatable, but everyone can agree that “slime molds are truly bizarre,” almost alien.

Previous studies of slime mold have found that they have a primitive form of memory based on information stored in their trails of goo. Despite being entirely brainless, slime molds can find the fastest route through a maze or between points.

Related to amoebas, slime molds can become habituated to a favorable route, and can even cross unfavorable regions to reach their food. They can learn harmful substances from harmless ones, then pass on that information by fusing with other individuals. Fusing together, some slime molds can form a super-organism hundreds of square centimeters in area, sharing thousands of nuclei, only to later disperse and go their separate ways, all the better for information they shared.

Pay someone a compliment today. Tell them they have the brains of a slime mold, a bat, an insect or a chicken. If they don’t smile and say “Thank you,” you may need to explain before they cry or hit you.

Seriously, Stephanie, how could learning predate the evolution of the nervous system? That’s ridiculous. You’re treating “learning” as some mystical phenomenon out there in space that mindless matter can latch onto. You need a refresher course in evolutionary theory. Then, correct your article to stay, “Stuff Happens.”



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