Animal Intelligence

In my recent post on plant ethics I said that animals were of ethical concern because we have good reasons to believe that, like us, they are capable of thinking and feeling and so are able to suffer. In this post I want to share some of those reasons and hopefully convince you, if you aren’t already convinced, that animals are far more than just unthinking, unfeeling machines. Since we are so closely related to other primates I’m going to ignore those examples and rather focus on two other animal groups, dolphins and corvids (ravens and crows).

Dolphins are one of the most obvious choices when talking about intelligence. There has even been a call to consider them as persons and give them rights, not unlike the Great Ape Project which wants basic rights for the great apes. Dolphins are known tool-users. For example in Shark Bay dolphins were seen wearing sponges on their nose. It turns out those sponges were tools, protecting the dolphins’ beaks as they foraged on the ocean floor for extra-nutritious fish hidden below the sand. This sponging behaviour isn’t only interesting for being tool use, it’s also a possible example of culture in a non-human species. I’m not guaranteeing that there is cultural transmission but I find it believable based on the examples of animal intelligence as a whole, more of which we will still look at in this post.

If dolphins did exhibit culture transmission then we might also expect them to have a fairly complex society. This they do have. Male dolphins often team up in groups of two or three, a first order alliance. Those duos and trios are also known to team up in fights, creating a second order alliance. In some situations it’s been observed that even those large alliances will support other second order alliances to create a third order alliance. That is a highly complex social group which is more advanced than has been observed in chimpanzees. This isn’t the first time we’ll see primates outdone but other animals. Of interest is that teamwork and social cooperation is the probably driver of human intelligence. If that is true dolphins are potentially on the same track that brought us here. We are the most intelligent species but it’s quite likely that we are the first but not the last to reach this level. We just aren’t that special.

Building on the last paragraph there’s even a possibility that different species of dolphins might be able to communicate with each other. When bottlenose and guyana dolphins come together near Costa Rica they modify their sounds to an intermediate pitch between what they use when they are alone. The work is not conclusive and has a number of limitations but the possibility is very exciting. It’s possible that the two species are trying to find an intermediate language, not unlike pidgin languages used by humans.

Usurp the human leaders (Source:

Birds are a particularly interesting demonstration of animal intelligence for two reasons. Firstly they are not expected to be smart. ‘Bird-brained’ is hardly a complement. Secondly they are surprisingly adept at tool use. There are a number of animals that use tools but those tools just happen to be whatever is lying around. Crows have been observed actually modifying an item to turn it into a useful tool for a particular task, an accomplishment that hasn’t been observed in other animals. In the experiment food was at the bottom of a tube but could be lifted out with a hook. One of the crows in the experiment instead took a straight piece of wire and proceeded to bend it into a hook and then use it to retrieve the food! Clearly it was able to see what needed to be done to reach the food as well as realising how objects in the environment could be modified to help it achieve it’s goals.

Ravens, closely related to crows, have showed evidence of high-level communication abilities. More specifically they have been observed using body language to gesture and direct other raven’s attention to specific places. Not only is this something that is not observed outside of primates, trained dogs aside, but gestural communication is one of the possible origins of human language. Just like with dolphins, it’s possible that ravens are moving down the same path that we once travelled. It’s not that unlikely when lots of people train birds to talk. It’s often just mimicry but some have been considered to understand what they are saying and what people are saying to them. Most notably is the African grey parrot named Alex who had a 150 word vocabulary.

Man’s best friend, the dog, doesn’t do too bad mentally itself. One dog, a border collie named Chaser, was taught to recognise the names of over 1000 toys. She was also able to combine the names with various commands and group her toys according to categories, leading the researchers to conclude that she:

-Learned and retained the names of 1022 toys.
-Demonstrated independence of meaning of names and commands
-Learned that common nouns represent categories
-Learned words by inferential reasoning of exclusion
-Demonstrated referential understanding of nouns

Dogs can also have similar psychological responses as us. Military dogs are being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and can be helped with the same anti-anxiety drugs that are given to humans.

Elephants have been shown to solve simple physics puzzles. They had already been taught to pull a platform with food towards them but when the rope looped around the platform it would just slide out. The elephants learned, faster than chimpanzees, that they needed to work together and pull either side of the rope to get the reward. One of the elephants was even reported to have figured out that she could just stand on the rope and not have to pull it at all.

It’s not just in the larger animals that this evidence of the similarities between humans and other animals shows up. I previously described a study on rats that offered evidence of empathy. One rat responded to another rat in distress and worked to free the distressed rat.

To me these examples of emotions and intelligent thinking in animals underlines the mental similarities we have. As these examples grow more numerous they become more difficult to shrug off. We are not the only thinking, feeling animal on the planet. We can suffer from the same problems and be treated the same way. With all those similarities it seems absurd to suggest that animals can not suffer and therefore aren’t ethically relevant. We need to acknowledge these facts and work towards changing our behaviour, society and ethics to fall in line with the evidence.


5 thoughts on “Animal Intelligence

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