Animals keep getting smarter…

I’m totally fascinated by stories and research on animal intelligence.  The closer researchers look at animal behavior, the more they’re surprised by unexpected cognitive abilities.

A wonderful case in point: researchers have recently shown that rooks (a relative of crows) can solve problems on a level that is nothing short of astonishing (h/t my postdoc advisor, from BBC News):

One of Aesop’s fables may have been based on fact, scientists report.

In the tale, written more than 2,000 years ago, a crow uses stones to raise the water level in a pitcher so it can reach the liquid to quench its thirst.

Now a study published in Current Biology reveals that rooks, a relative of crows, do just the same when presented with a similar situation.

The team says the study shows rooks are innovative tool-users, even though they do not use tools in the wild.

Another paper, published in the journal Plos One, shows that New Caledonian crows – which like rooks, are a member of the corvid group, along with ravens, jackdaws, magpies and jays – can use three tools in succession to reach a treat.

There are accompanying videos on the BBC site, which are quite spectacular.  Stories of ravens solving problems and using tools are not new, but this story is quite amazing because of the indirect nature of the solution and the connections which the rook must make to arrive at that solution.

The cognitive abilities of birds are quite frightening!  The wife and I are planning ahead and trying to placate them with lots of bird feeders in the backyard on the off chance they decide to take over.

Also via my postdoc advisor is this charming little anecdote from Holland.  In eastern Holland is a fascinating nature park called Apenheul (“ape hill”), in which the smaller primates are allowed to roam free and interact with the visitors1.  The article from Het Parool is in Dutch, so I will quote my former advisor’s email:

Among the different brands of monkeys that are allowed to roam free there are so-called berber monkeys. The gorillas of course aren’t. But they get fed at certain hours, and one of those berbers likes to watch that and simply takes a seat among the other spectators. After the feeding show he or she simply heads back to his part of the zoo.

The picture from Het Parool is rather priceless:



1 I had pictures from Apenheul, but I foolishly checked my camera on the return flight from The Netherlands and had my memory card swiped from it.

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8 Responses to Animals keep getting smarter…

  1. The Ridger says:

    That’s intriguing. So sorry about your pictures.

  2. Markk says:

    Hiking in New Zealand, the Kea’s (a large parrot) were so smart that they would unzip the top compartment of a standard issue backpack because they knew that people generally put lunches there. They did this only in the morning.

  3. IronMonkey says:

    Quite amazing indeed. Makes me recall my mandatory philosophy course in high school when the teacher said “of course animals are much inferior then us humans, because they don’t have any free will…” and I raised my hand and asked “How do you know?”. Maybe animals are simply less crazy then us 🙂

    • IM: This is as good a place as any to reprint a classic Douglas Adams quote:

      It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.

    • The Wife says:

      IronMonkey – your teacher obviously never met a cat.

  4. ColonelFazackerley says:

    Apologies for my pedantry…

    Apenheul is in Apeldoorn, which is in the province of Gelderland. Not in the province of North or South Holland.

    So, it is in the Netherlands, but not in Holland.

    • Colonel: Well, I would say yes and no! Though the formal name of the country is “The Netherlands”, and “Holland” refers to two provinces in the west of the country, “Holland” has become informally associated with the entire country as well. My impression is that “Holland” is a name that just sounds nicer and is easier to use, much like “America” has evolved into a reference to the U.S.A., even though “America” in general refers to two continents. This may not be technically correct, and may be opposed by some of the Dutch for all I know, but my born-and-bred-Dutch postdoc advisor uses this terminology (he wrote to me about Apenheul being in the “east of Holland”) and so does The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions. Certainly while I lived there I never heard “Holland” used in any other way than to refer to the country as a whole.

      • ColonelFazackerley says:


        I have consulted a native (my mum). She agreed that it was a bit wrong, but very common. I guess I will have to accept that the language has evolved.

        Apologies for riding off on a tangent on your nice animal intelligence post.

        Getting back on topic: I am planning a trip to NL next year and I am thinking of staying in the Veluwe, and will try to visit the Apenheul.

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