Comparing animal cognition to our own is tricky business. Animals have differently tuned senses and use them in sometimes radically different ways than we do. In some cases, there simply is no commeasurability.
Yet, there are still situations in which we can sensibly demonstrate one species outperforms others, including humans. Thanks to scientific testing, researchers have been able to identify animals smarter than humans, at least in certain domains.
Here is a list of animals that outdo or rival Homo sapiens in cognitive tests.
Corvids include crows, ravens, jays, and some other incredibly brainy birds. Members of the corvidae family routinely prove their intelligence by solving complex puzzles and passing other mental tests. In fact, they are so successful at rising to these challenges, they can even manage to best human kindergartners.
In a recent experiment with New Caledonian crows, the birds demonstrated that they seemed to have a better understanding of water displacement than humans as old as 5 to 7 years.1
The crows would drop rocks into water-filled tubes that contained floating but unreachable treats. The birds understood that this would raise the water level, bringing the food closer. It was found that crows preferred to use heavy, solid items for dropping rather than light, buoyant ones.
In a follow-up study, it was also found that the birds could figure out how to use displacement with 2 connected tubes.2 They grasped that by dropping rocks into one tube, the water in the other tube would rise.
As our closest living relatives, chimpanzees have unsurprisingly shown themselves to be exceptionally intelligent. They also have impressive short-term memories – better than our own.
Chimps can remember the location of numbers flashed before them for a fraction of a second.3 In a study, scientists quickly flashed the numbers on a screen, then required the chimps to tap them in the right order. The chimps were able to do this rapidly, and up to 8 steps. Most humans are relatively slow at this, and can only reach about 5 or 6.
This discovery suggests that chimps have a “photographic” memory. They can instantly form a mental snapshot of a scene. Such an ability could be infinitely useful for quickly sizing up dangerous situations, remembering the locations of food, and even forming a mental map of their home territory.
If a pigeon competed on the game show, Let’s Make a Deal, human players wouldn’t stand a chance.
That’s because scientists have found that they do far better at solving what’s known as the “Monty Hall problem“.4 This probability puzzle is modeled off of the one used in the game show.
There are 3 doors. A prize lies behind only one of them. The others hide goats. After you choose a door, one of the others is opened, revealing a goat. Now, you can choose to stick with your original door, or switch to the only remaining one.
By switching, you actually increase your odds of winning. This is something humans aren’t great at grasping, but pigeons seem to understand intuitively. Just about every time pigeons are faced with this puzzle, they decide to switch.
Ironically, pigeons may do better at this problem precisely because they aren’t smarter than humans. Whereas we tend to trip up by overthinking the problem, the pigeons keep things simple.
In certain scenarios, rats seem to be better at generalizing what they’ve learned from past experience and applying that knowledge to new situations.5
A study pitted lab rats against human students in a category learning task. Both groups were shown 2 patterns on a screen. After a series of selecting patterns and receiving corresponding positive or negative feedback, both the rats and humans learned which patterns were “good” and which were “bad”.
The real challenge is what came after. They would have to apply what they had learned on a more difficult task. The new test required them to sort out the good from the bad again, only this time, between more complex patterns. It’s here where the rats outperformed the humans. The study’s lead scientist, Ben Vermaercke, explained how and why:
“How do you tell if a berry is good for eating? You learn that this small red one is good, and then you save energy by bypassing the ones of a different shape or color. So our brains have been conditioned to look for rules… But in other situations there’s too much going on for simple rules to work, and that’s when information integration learning has to kick in… Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of evidence showing that humans have a harder time learning how to integrate information in this way, because they seek rules even when there are none…
Our theory is that instead of considering the specific data points and trying to find and apply a rule, our rat subjects employed what we call a similarity-based categorization strategy: Does this pattern look like the ‘good’ targets we saw in training?”6
It appears that, much like with the pigeons, rats had an advantage over humans in this test because they were thinking on simpler terms.
A 2012 study tested the reasoning abilities of African grey parrots.7 The birds were presented with 2 opaque containers – one containing food, the other not.
When the containers were shaken, the parrots could tell just by the sound which cup was empty and which had a treat inside. Reasoning like this using only auditory cues is an ability most human two-year-olds simply don’t have. It’s only when human children reach age 3 that they can perform just as well as the parrots.
The parrots are able to understand that if food is inside a container, then shaking it around will create noise. They’re capable of using basic logic to learn about what isn’t already visible in their environment.
These instances of animals outperforming humans don’t show that these species are actually smarter than humans overall. However, such examples do highlight that humans cannot claim dominion in every aspect of intelligence. To learn more about cases in which animals can cognitively outperform humans, be on the lookout for further additions in this article series.
This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder & editor of Animal Cognition.
1 – Sarah A. Jelbert , Alex H. Taylor, Lucy G. Cheke, Nicola S. Clayton, Russell D. Gray
Using the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm to Investigate Causal Understanding of Water Displacement by New Caledonian Crows
2 – Corina J. Logan , Sarah A. Jelbert, Alexis J. Breen, Russell D. Gray, Alex H. Taylor
Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm Change New Caledonian Crow Performances
3 – Sana Inoue, Tetsuro Matsuzawa
Working memory of numerals in chimpanzees
4 – Walter T. Herbranson
Pigeons, Humans, and the Monty Hall Dilemma
Current Directions in Psychological Science
5 – Vermaercke B., Cop E., Willems S., D’Hooge R., Op de Beeck HP.
More complex brains are not always better: rats outperform humans in implicit category-based generalization by implementing a similarity-based strategy.
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
6 – Rats Can Be Smarter Than People
Harvard Business Review
7 – Christian Schloegl, Judith Schmidt, Markus Boeckle, Brigitte M. Weiß, Kurt Kotrschal
Grey parrots use inferential reasoning based on acoustic cues alone
Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences