Bird brains, chattering elephants, savvy cephalopods: What defines animal intelligence?

Dog looking at a parrot

What if brain size, the yardstick by which intelligence has primarily been measured, actually had little to do with how "smart" one is? What if animals, long thought humans' intellectual inferiors, actually have their own systems for communicating, problem-solving, and navigating their respective worlds -- systems we may only be beginning to understand or even recognize?

In a recently published article in Orion magazine about an octopus named Athena, writer Sy Montgomery posits that octopuses and other creatures are actually much more clever than we give them credit for. Like us, they enjoy solving puzzles, playing with toys, and even have distinct personalities (from aggressive to methodical and even impetuous). The observed intelligence in these cephalods has inspired at least one blog: The Octopus Chronicles. 

Animal communication expert Katy Payne spoke at PopTech 2009 on her work with elephants. Careful observation of captive elephants lead her to realize that they were communicating with each other at sub-sonic levels: below the level at which humans can hear. This breakthrough enabled her to found the Elephant Listening Project, which "seeks to learn about [elephants'] lives and the unique threats they face, and to directly aid in their conservation."

Our previous definition of intelligence, which used to be the exclusive province of big-brained mammals, is now being applied to creatures with smaller brains. It's now known that birds, long thought of as simpletons with wings (know any "bird-brains"?) can actually compose music, create dance steps, rhymes and even "rap". And a list of "Top Ten Smartest Animals" from MSNBC ranges from the lowly though undeniably tenacious rat, to image and face-recognizing pigeons and crows. 

Naturalist Charles Darwin mentions a difference of intelligence in degrees rather than species. "Man in his arrogance thinks of himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. [Yet it is] more humble and, I believe, true to consider him created from animals," writes Darwin in The Descent of Man. Sy Montgomery notes that while some of what people observe about animals is anthropromophism, "suggesting that the mind is just the property of the human species is...crazy."

With more and more species being declared extinct, it's imperative that we understand animals and their place in the world, and assign value to them beyond just as a resource or entertainment for humans. How we think about and treat the animals that share the planet with us will almost certainly help determine its future.

We opened with an octopus, so will close with a video clip on octopuses unique brains and their ability to problem solve. We think them quite amazing.

Image: Ferran Pestaña via Flickr

Video: Cribeiro Videos via YouTube

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