From Elephants to Insects, Research is Revealing that Animal Intelligence is More Complex than We Thought

Fascinating Research of animals is beginning to uncover the complexity of their feelings and thought processes. For a long time, scientists believed that animal intelligence could be easily arranged into a hierarchy, with humans at the top, followed by primates and other mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. However, in the 1960s, a new generation of researchers challenged this notion and suggested that intelligence should be considered in relative terms, as each animal follows a unique evolutionary path.

Advances in technology now enable researchers to observe animals for prolonged periods without disturbing their natural behavior, revealing sophisticated behaviors that were previously underestimated. For example, remote-controlled drones are being used in Melbourne to understand the breeding patterns of southern right whales, and AI is being used to understand, track and predict the movements of various organisms.

Despite the changing understanding of animal intelligence, it is often recognized when an animal’s behavior is similar to that of humans. For instance, elephants are known to remember and return to the gravesites of deceased herd members, and a study from 2019 found that they also exhibit an interest in the dead bodies of other elephants throughout the stages of decomposition, hinting at an understanding of death and perhaps even consciousness of their own mortality.

Dolphins are often used as test subjects for intelligence studies, and as early as 2006, researchers suspected that they used whistles as analogues for human names, with each member of a pod having a unique frequency. Studies have also found that dolphin communication, like human language, is flexible and context-dependent. A study from 2017 discovered that dolphins in southern Brazil had developed a distinct accent after more than 100 years of interaction with local fishermen.

AI generated image of a crow with glasses using a pencil

Intelligence is not limited to mammals, many birds, including parrots, have complex social groups and exhibit associative learning, a marker of intelligence. Even insects, with their small brains, possess an impressive array of cognitive skills such as tool use, face recognition, numerical competence and learning through observation.

Recent research calls into question the previously held belief that the development of cognitive ability is unique to certain animal lineages, reaching from mammals to primates and finally to humans. New similarities have been found between the structure of human brains and the brains of cephalopods, suggesting that intelligence could be the product of convergent evolution, that is, a target that can be reached by any species subjected to the right environmental pressures.

Research suggests that intelligence is distributed differently across the animal kingdom, with most animals displaying exceptional skills in a single cognitive domain while performing poorly in others. For example, chimpanzees excel at memory and problem-solving, but perform poorly in other areas. Understanding the complexity of animal intelligence and where it comes from, is an ongoing and exciting area of research.

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