Animals with Surprising Mental Capabilities

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Humans have proven over time to be the dominant species on Earth. Such dominance, though, has led to arrogance in assuming that other animals do not possess any of the same intellectual functions that we do. However, this notion has been proven incorrect by a wide variety of studies that show that animals are not mindless beings that only eat and sleep; many species exhibit a wide range of intellectual abilities that were long thought to be exclusive to human beings, like abstract thought, long-term memory, and the ability to recognize the moods of other species.

Ravens Consider the Thoughts of Others

Many birds should higher intelligence than most other animals, but ravens in particularly are incredibly clever. The University of Vienna conducted a study in an effort to discover if ravens were able to consider the thoughts of others before making a decision. They took ten ravens, all of whom had been raised in captivity, and paired them up. One would be placed on one side of a room while its partner was placed on the opposite side. The two birds were separated by a window that ran down the center of the room. The researchers gave each raven a treat and they both seemed aware that the other bird could see them, taking care to be very sneaky about where they hid their treat so that the other would not see. Then, the scientists replaced the window in the center of the room with a wall that contained a peephole. The researchers would put the ravens into the room one by one and play simulated raven calls into the room. They then gave the birds another treat to hide. If the peephole was closed, they were clearly not as careful when they would hide it. When the peephole was opened, though, they took much more care (France-Presse). This behavior shows that ravens are capable of abstract thought and able to consider the thoughts of another when making a decision, a behavior once believed to be exclusively human.

Cats Know You, They Just Don’t Care About You

Jokes about cats not really caring about people are pretty common, but scientists have actually confirmed that your cat really does not care all that much about you. The University of Tokyo arranged a study of twenty pet cats in order to understand whether or not cats can recognize the voices of familiar people. In order to avoid overstimulation, the cats were tested in their homes. Researchers played recordings of three strangers saying the cat’s name, then the owner calling the cat, and then one more stranger. Based on the cats’ body language, it was concluded that the cats were definitely able to determine which voice was their owner’s (Roy). Unfortunately, though, it did not matter who called the cat, they showed no interest whatsoever in responding to the call. While dogs are known for seeking affection and approval from their owners, only one tenth of the cats involved in the study meowed in response to their owner’s call (Farkas). This proves that they can recognize their owner’s voice, but they just do not care enough to answer.


While we have known for a long time that dogs are intelligent animals, the depth of their intelligence has been uncovered in a recent study by the University of Helsinki. They proved that dogs are able to recognize when their owners are angry and then adjust their behavior in an attempt to diffuse it. The researchers studied the dogs and found that they study human faces in a way similar to how they study dog faces; when it comes to dogs, they primarily study the mouth before moving on to the eyes and nose, while with humans they analyze the eyes, first and for the most time, before studying the nose and mouth, too (Karmitsa). There are specific characteristics of various facial expressions that attract the dogs’ attention and elicit certain responses. All of the more than thirty dogs across thirteen breeds studied showed that they were able to determine which expressions were threatening, neutral, or pleasant. With other canines, the dogs would maintain eye contact, but with humans, they avoid it and instead attempt to appear meek (Farkas). This behavior is evidence of emotion-relation gaze patterns in animals that are not primates. Many years ago, Charles Darwin proposed that there existed a similarity in human and non-human emotional expressions, suggesting evolutionary roots.

Lizard Logic

Usually, the animals that are considered to be the most intelligent are traditionally mammals. But while warm-blooded animals have more energy to put into tasks like learning, cold-blooded animals are certainly not incapable. A behavioral ecologist at Duke University conducted a study with tropical Anolis Evermanni lizards in order to see if these reptiles would be able to learn. They hid worm larvae underneath blue disks. This specific type of lizard finds food by climbing up trees and has no experience digging for their food. Still, though, the lizards were able to move the disks in different ways with their mouths and noses. Next, yellow disks were introduced and the lizards stuck with the blue disks that promised snacks. When the researchers switched to hiding the food under the yellow disks, though, the lizards quickly switched (Bhanoo). These lizards exhibited behavior that is normally associated with smarter birds or mammals. What is more impressive, is that warm-blooded animals eat often and are able to practice several times per day while cold-blooded animals only eat once and do nothing for the remainder of their time. Even with less time and opportunity to learn and practice their new skill, the lizards were able to adapt their behavior.

City Birds Get Street Smart

While widespread urbanization is often detrimental to animals in a plethora of ways, it seems that city birds are adapting to their surroundings and becoming smarter than their rural counterparts. McGill University in Montreal has found that the challenges faced by birds that live in cities make them more innovative, resistant, and resourceful. In addition, they were able to find new ways to exploit their rich, busy environments. The study was conducted in Barbados because of the range in environment from rural to urbanized. They collected more than fifty bullfinches from across the island from each kind of area. Each bird was presented with the same small puzzle, requiring them to pull a slide and remove a cap to get to gain access to a pile of birdseed. The birds that lived in more developed areas were more likely to successfully complete the puzzle and did so faster than their country cousins (Farkas).

Capuchins’ Protest Injustice

Humans are certainly not the only animals who can recognize unfair treatment, as recently proven buy a study on capuchin monkeys. In the study, there were two monkeys; capuchin A and capuchin B. The monkeys learned quickly that they will receive a special snack if they hand the researcher a rock. Capuchin A hands the experimenter the rock and then receives a piece of cucumber. Capuchin B performs the same task but is given a much sweeter, and thus much more desired, grape. Capuchin A noticed that the other monkey received a grape instead of a cucumber and quickly tried to hand the researcher another rock, expecting to receive a grape in return. However, when it receives another cucumber, it threw the cucumber back at the researcher and began screeching and banging on the table in frustration. Capuchin B received another grape when it handed the rock to the researcher and Capuchin A repeated the task, hoping again for a grape. When it received a third cucumber, it picked up another rock and threw it against the wall of its enclosure. The evolutionary reflex of confronting injustice likely developed as a way to foster cooperation and increase the likelihood of survival in social animals (King).

Elephants Can Recognize Voices

Everyone has heard the phrase “an elephant never forgets”. Well, as it turns out, that is actually true. Elephants have been proven to be able to recognize the trumpet of other individual elephants. At The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, resident elephant Jenny was introduced to her new pen mate, Shirley. While the animal keepers were expecting a meeting of two strangers, the elephants greeted each other like familiar friends; they were anxious and excited to get close to one another and they began to run their trunks over each other’s faces and bodies. One witness explained, “There was this euphoria. Shirley started bellowing, and then Jenny did, too. Both trunks were checking out each other’s scars. I’ve never experienced anything that intense without it being aggression” (Ritchie). Confused, their handlers checked the personal record of Shirley, the new elephant. It was discovered that more than twenty years earlier, the two elephants served together in the Carson & Barnes Circus for only a few months (Ritchie). Other studies have shown that elephants are able to keep track of and remember more than thirty distinct family members. Observation of elephants at the Ambroseli National Park in Kenya has shown that elephants are able to hear human voices and determine the speaker’s age group, gender, and they can even distinguish between several languages (Farkas).  Another study showed that elephants with older, and therefore wiser, matriarchs are fare better than those with a younger leader due to the older elephant’s longer memory. Groups with older matriarchs were more likely to know which outsider elephants were threats to them and their calves than the groups with younger matriarchs (Ritchie). In another case, there was a terrible drought that affected the elephants’ water and food supply. The older matriarchs remembered times of previous droughts and where the group found food and water during those times. The only groups that stayed in the same place were the ones whose matriarchs were too young to remember the last drought. Such behavior and survival adaptation has enabled them to avoid the language of tribes who hunt them. As researchers say, “They are long-lived animals, and memory would be a benefit to a long-lived animal, making it more adaptive to circumstances” (Ritchie). Elephants are also the only animals that have proven to be able to recognize their own reflections. These skills are far beyond the known intellectual capacity of the vast majority of other animals, placing them on the same level as primates, dolphins, and even humans.


While humans are clearly able to perform intellectual processes that are above the abilities of animals, many studies have found that several animal species are capable of much higher-functioning thought than we previously believed them to be. Some animals are able to consider the thoughts and motivations of other before making their own decisions, others are able to recognize facial and emotional expression in other species, and other still possess the ability to draw upon decades-old memories of other animals and locations in order to aid in their survival. Yes, humans may be intellectually dominant, but other animals may not be as far behind us as we thought.

Works Cited

Bhanoo, Sindya N. “To Find Tasty Larvae, Lizards Use Their Brains”. The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Jul. 2011. Web. 15 Aug, 2016.

Farkas, Ivan. “10 Species That Are Smarter Than Anyone Thought”. Listverse. Listverse, Inc., 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. <

France-Presse, Agence. “Ravens can imagine being spied on, study finds”. The Guardian. The Guardian, 2 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. < study-finds

Karmitsa, Eeva. “Dogs Distinguish Emotions Behind Facial Expressions”. University of Helsinki. University of Helsinki, 19 Jan. 2016. Web. 15 Aug. 2016 <;

King, Barbara J. “Feeling Down? Watching This Will Help”. NPR. NPR, 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. <

Ritchie, James. “Fact or Fiction?: Elephants Never Forget”. Scientific American. Scientific American, 12 Jan. 2009. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. <

Roy, Jessica. “Cats Know You’re Talking to Them But Couldn’t Care Less”. TIME. TIME Inc., 22 Nov. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. <