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Not to stroke our own ego, but humans are pretty darn smart. We know this. So, aside from the potential of an ultra-intelligent alien race who supersedes us, what other animals in the kingdom get a medal? 

Research has dedicated a lot of energy to answering this question, not only because it’s fascinating, but because we can learn a lot from studying it. From informing how we develop weapons for the military, to improving our global communications systems, humans have benefited greatly from observing other animals and playing copy-cat. 

This article is going to delve into the intelligence and unique adaptations that animals display. First, we’ll define intelligence, because it’s actually a very fluid and puzzling concept (that’s an entire area of study in-and-of itself!). 

Second, we’ll highlight the qualities of each animal that made the cut. Who doesn’t love ooh-ing and ahh-ing over cool facts?

What is Intelligence?

The concept of intelligence has likely existed in our collective culture since the beginning of our evolution. But defining it has been more elusive.  Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle pondered the issue, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that efforts were made to quantitatively measure it.  Broadly, we define intelligence as the ability to make sense of our surroundings and retain that knowledge for later use. Sounds simple enough, but the sheer variety that humans and animals show in this capability is boggling.

How Do We Study it?

This is a complicated question with a complicated answer. Because intelligence is so difficult to define, it’s difficult to test. But scientists have developed tools that are fairly adept at measuring intelligence, given our operative definition of it. The most common intelligence test is the Intelligence Quotient or I.Q. test.  This examines the test taker’s ability on several dimensions, including mathematical, spatial, logical, verbal, and memory. Chances are we have all taken this test in the past, as many public education systems deploy it to assess a child’s academic potential.

How Did Intelligence Testing Evolve?

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The first tests used were extremely blunt instruments, but they were unfortunately codified for too long, negatively affecting many people’s lives.  For example, immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island were subject to an intelligence test that was culturally insensitive. Questions like, “your pet rabbit has died, what do you do?" would appear on the test and immigrants, who often came from desperate circumstances, would answer that they would cook and eat the rabbit.  It’s clear today that this question has no bearing on intelligence but it was wielded against immigrants, often unjustly labeling them as “retarded" or “mentally unfit."  

An Argument for Adaptation

Although adaptation is distinct from intelligence, its functionality is very similar. Animals evolve specific features to cope with their environment, and these adaptations are often true feats of nature! This compilation will give a nod to these animals as well because their value is just the same as classically intelligent animals.

Pigs

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Humans have documented the intelligence of pigs since the 1990’s, when scientists trained pigs in the lab to distinguish between familiar and novel scribbles on a screen, pushing a cursor with their snout to submit their answers.  Other research has shown that they are expert social learners as well: pigs who had been trained to anticipate a negative or positive circumstance were put into the same pen as a pig that was naive to the anticipated outcome.  When the scientists measured the two pigs cortisol levels and recorded their behavior, they matched. This suggests that pigs are emotionally in tune, a sign of intelligence.

Sharks

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Or more specifically, shark skin. What appears to be a smooth surface is actually lined with tiny placoid scales or dermal denticles. These tiny, tooth-like structures increase the shark’s dynamism by directing water past its grooves. Ironically, a perfectly smooth surface creates more drag because the water that passes over the surface is moving slower than the surrounding water, resulting in turbulent vortices. Humans have successfully harnessed this technology in swimsuits, planes, and cars, improving the efficiency of how we travel.

Butterflies

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The sheen on a butterfly’s wings isn’t just pretty (and the subject of way too many Halloween costumes) it’s helping humans develop green energy sources. Engineers were inspired by the Morpho Didius butterfly, whose wings contains micro cone-like structures that scatter light, giving them a cerulean blue appearance. These structures have now been mapped onto solar panels, permitting a more efficient distribution of energy.

Baboons

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Of course, what list on animal intelligence would be complete without mention of monkeys?  Baboons are a part of the old world monkey family and their social systems are complex as a sorority’s. One particularly interesting insight into their intelligence lies in an unfortunate anecdote on an occasion where a baboon troop was nearly wiped out from tuberculosis. The majority of the troop’s alpha males were wiped out, causing the troop to reorganize and adopt more flexible, harmonious social behaviors. This goes to show that baboons aren’t simple automatons, they’re sensitive and socially adept.

Male King of Saxony

The 39 species of the birds of paradise are a captivating bunch. Of course, their plumage is astounding (it’s only found in the males, though!) but their vocalizations are just as diverse. Take, for example, the Male King of Saxony species, whose extraterrestrial song matches its space-age appearance. This song and dance interplay is how the male bird of paradise attracts its mate, and scientists believe that bird vocalization may be the first form of language.

Elephants

Everyone has prominent memories from childhood, and one of mine is my first IMAX movie. I was seven years old watching a documentary on a herd of elephants.  I remember watching the herd revisit the grave of a lost member, and even from my sanitized view of the scene, I could empathize with their grief.  This is a well-documented elephant behavior and has provided us insight into their intelligence.  Grief is a complex emotion that has been observed in humans to require synaptic communication between the frontal lobe and the hindbrain. Our highly developed frontal lobe is largely what we attribute our extraordinary intelligence to, so the fact that elephants exhibit grief is a likely sign that they have intelligent thought as well.  

Toucans

Toucan Sam’s got a secret hiding in that giant beak, but you’ll have to look closely. The weight of their beaks technically should be too cumbersome for their heads, but its composition defies these odds.  The beak’s outer layer is solid, protecting a spongy inside. These two layers work synergistically to absorb energy and resist pressure, making it the star of many researchers study.  One potential technology? Vehicles that are strong enough to be crash-resistant and light enough to maintain fuel economy.

Crows

We underestimate crows. Probably because they’re common, homely, and sound like a broken kazoo. But aviation researcher, John Marzluff, actually refers to them as “flying monkeys."  A crow’s brain is as large as a human thumb, which in ratio to their body size, puts them on par with primates. Crows can actually understand rules of physics.  In a test called Aesop’s Fable, crows were provided a test tube filled with water and an anchored piece of meat.  The crows were able to retrieve the meat by dropping stones into the tube and raising the water level. Apparently, this took some trial and error for the crows, but it’s pretty astounding.

Octopuses

The octopus is a species cephalopod, which is a class of invertebrates.  Generally, the farther an animal appears from a human, the less intelligent we consider them. But unlike most cephalopods, whose ganglia are spread across their bodies, octopuses have a centralized cluster of ganglia which we define as a brain.  Among some of their most impressive traits? The ability to play. Scientists placed two octopuses in a tank with nothing but an empty pill bottle.  Within a few trials, the two octopuses were taking turns spewing jets of water at the pill bottle, almost like a game of catch. Now imagine if we gave them an iPhone.

Dolphins

Dolphins hold a special place in our culture, we recognize that there is something more going on behind that bottlenose.  For as familiar and cute as they seem, they’re also eerily bizarre. They “see" using sonar, operate their eyes independently, only rest half of their brains at a time, and exhibit a bevy of extraterrestrial vocalizations.  How do they demonstrate their intelligence?  Trainers can actually signal to two dolphins to complete an improvised task, in synchrony! The dolphins will disappear under water, clicking and whistling to one another, before popping up to the surface to display a well-coordinated sequence of tricks. Witnessing this would make it difficult to deny that dolphins employ a type of language that’s richly nuanced.

African Grey Parrots

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African Greys are the whole package, beauty, and brains. Research suggests that they are as smart as a 5-year-old child, and can actually outperform children on their understanding of volume.  A Harvard lab showed African Greys two cups holding either less or more juice. The scientists then poured the juice into two other cups, one with a false bottom to give it the appearance of holding the same amount of liquid.  Despite this trickery, the birds could still distinguish which cup held the most juice, implying that their working memories are able to store information and use it to shape their decisions.

Orangutans

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In Malay, Orangutan translates to the “person of the forest" and research backs this notion. As the only ape that originates from Asia, Orangutans are impressively intelligent.  One lab test provided Orangutans with straws that they could sip a fruit juice with. Later, when presented with the option of a straw or a grape, the Orangutan chose the straw.  This behavior leads us to believe that the orangutan can plan and use foresight; a straw that can be used over and over is better than a grape that can be eaten only once!

Killer Whales

Whales are similar to dolphins, both belonging to the order Cetacea. Killer Whales have been subject to much controversy, as well as research.  Scientists have located a unique part in a Killer Whale’s brain that even humans don’t possess. Their brain’s emotional processing region, or limbic system, is so well developed that it actually spreads into the cortex, forming an additional paralimbic lobe.

Sea Lions

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Sea Lions belong to the pinniped order, which are one of only four orders of animals that possess brains that are larger than 1.5 pounds. Their intelligence is understudied compared to their fellow brainy brethren, but science is beginning to catch on. Rio, a sea lion who lives at the University of California Santa Cruz, learned to associate the silhouette of a crab with a tulip, and then a tulip with a radio.  In an exciting leap, Rio then paired the crab with the radio. This is the only time that an animal other than a human has displayed logic.

Portia Spider

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Although spiders are far from being considered intelligent, the Portia spider is eerily adept. When hunting for prey that varies from their typical menu, the Portia spider can rapidly adapt their behavior and then recall the tactic in the future.

Raccoons

In an alley-oop to the crow’s successful pass at Aesop’s Fable test, raccoons also earned high marks – if not a bit unconventionally. Researchers dropped a marshmallow into a tube of water too low for the raccoons to reach. They then showed them how to drop stones into the tube to raise the level of water, which two of the eight raccoons in the study mimicked. Yet a third raccoon conquered the test simply by rocking the tube back and forth until it upended, spilling the contents and the tasty treat. Classic.

Mantis Shrimp

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Despite the misnomer, the Mantis shrimp is not a shrimp but a stomatopod (you know what they say, stomado-potato-potata).  When the Mantis hunts, it releases its appendages in a hammer like “fwack, fwack!" to crack the shells and bodies of its prey. The speed that they deploy their limbs actually creates a cavitation bubble, meaning that the surrounding water vaporizes!  This phenomenon destroys propellers on ships, but the Mantis shrimp remains unaffected. As a result, the military is studying these creatures to try to bottle their magic.

Camels

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Camels live in some seriously inhospitable conditions and as a result, have evolved some seriously intriguing features.  Their nostrils can fully seal to resist any sandstorm and they have a nictitating eyelid to do the same.  Their humps are actually used to store fat, not water, but when a camel does encounter water, it can drink near 30 gallons in one go.

Dorcas Gazelle

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This species of gazelle must have been souped-up by Xzibit because it has an astonishing trick up its sleeve. The Dorcas Gazelle doesn’t need to drink water… ever. It can consume all the water it needs from the plants it eats, which is a perfect way to combat the harsh environments it inhabits.

African Spiny Mouse

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Although far less sexy than Hugh Jackman, this animal shares a pivotal trait with his character, Wolverine. The African Spiny Mouse can regenerate its skin remarkably well. While most animals generate scar tissue to heal their wounds, this mouse can fully replace their hair follicles, skin, sweat glands, and cartilage.

Scorpion

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Unfortunately, as humans age, our metabolisms slow down (sorry, no more burgers at 2 am after pounding tequila). The scorpion, on the other hand, welcomes this process, having used it for the last 400 million years to survive. In times of scarcity, the scorpion can slow its metabolism to one-third its typical rate.

Notothenioid Fish

Notothenioid fish are comprised of five families, all inhabiting the Southern ocean that envelopes Antarctica. These fish have a special type of protein coursing through their veins that acts as an antifreeze. The fish are so adept at surviving in these conditions that they make up 90 percent of the biodiversity in this region.

Parrotfish

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Parrotfish are “strange birds", indeed. They have three adaptations that make them extraordinary. First, they have pharyngeal teeth that they use to grind up corals.  They’re also hermaphroditic, changing sex based on their population density. Third, they manufacture a mucus cocoon to mark their scent and protect themselves when they sleep.

Dogs

Immortal Jellyfish

Amazingly, this title is not a figure of speech, it’s completely literal. This species of Hydrozoa was first observed in the lab where instead of dying within a few days of capture, it began to revert back into a polyp, shocking researchers.  Unfortunately, the mechanisms that the Immortal jellyfish uses to escape death are poorly understood, but scientists have concluded that they use transdifferentiation.  This is also referred to as lineage reprogramming, allowing a mature somatic cell to transform into another somatic cell without sustaining the pluripotent state first.

The Moral of the Story is...

This article may never help you win at trivia night, but I hope it did help you to appreciate how amazing the natural world is. Evolution is the original technology and what’s come out of it is arguably just as fascinating as the computer that sits in the palm of our hands. Don't forget to share this with your friends!