Years ago, it was thought that animals responded to environmental stimuli with stereotyped behaviors. Today it is thought that each species has a different evolutionary history, which has endowed it with different “intelligences”, special abilities and details resulting from adaptations to different situations and environments.
Probably, animals do not have the same capacities of man, and many abilities of abstraction are not so high; but even among our companions there seem to be precursors for every feature of human intelligence. In fact, there are species that manage to work out complex calculations for the distance, or others capable of seeing colors that are unknown to us. But even properly human faculties, such as language and calculation, seem to be present, although not in such a complex manner, in many other species. The behaviors and faculties of the animal world opened up a whole world, unknown until a few years ago.
The ability to count is one of the first characteristics that is sought in animals. In many circumstances, animals need to make numerical estimates; but until a few years ago it was not certain that they really used numbers. In fact they can evaluate the size of the group of objects they have in front, or the quantity of color; however, laboratory studies have made it clear that animals really can count.
For example, cats do it with kittens. But counting also serves when they have to evaluate two or more piles of food: better to go straight to the larger one.
Numerosity estimation is something that animals do immediately and spontaneously.
The history of the relationship between animals and numbers is very long. However the first to be studied scientifically were the children: it was easy to put them in front of a screen and ask, even to the little ones, whether they distinguished between a group with three elements and one with four. In fact, four is the maximum number understandable for children and it is also for animals.
But the experiments had ascertained another fact; this ability was already present in them from birth. In short, it was what was once called “innate”, not mediated by learning or culture.
From the babies of a few months to the monkeys (including the anthropomorphic ones) the step, for a scientist, was short enough. And here it was discovered how the macaques know how to count, which also the chimpanzees do with ease. But from there the experiments involved quite a few other animals, from fish to bees, dolphins and chicks.
Among the most skillful species there are the dolphins that, placed in front of two groups of any objects, immediately go – after training – to the largest group. But other species, as far as counting are concerned, reserve great surprises.
In a famous experiment, the bees have thus shown that they know how to count the flowers in which scientists had placed food: if the drops of nectar were in the third flower of the experimental “field”, then the insects always go down on the third, even if the distances between the flowers or other features had changed.
Even animals considered not particularly evolved, such as salamanders, are able to discern between two groups composed of elements in unequal numbers: placed in front of two test tubes that contained two or three flies headed immediately to the richest tube.
To the animals with the gift of mathematics we must also add the pigeons. This is established by a New Zealand research, which posed in front of birds an apparently very “human” problem: besides counting, and therefore establishing that, for example, after three comes four, animals had to learn “ordinality”.
They had to be able to put in order two groups of symbols with different numbers, even if the rest of the experiment had not been carried out precisely on those numbers. After they had learned this task with lists consisting of one or two or three objects, that is, they were asked to order other lists consisting of groups ranging from one to nine objects.
And the pigeons were able to understand that four was less than seven, and eight more than six. Also this species therefore joins the group of animals that, in one way or another, are able to handle the numbers; and this only confirms the suspicion that a large part of the animal world has, to a greater or lesser extent, the capacity to make an account.
Animals and Language
One of the typical abilities of humana is language. That is, the ability to extend a property of letters to infinity (such as that of numbers). Thus with only ten digits we can make extremely complex calculations, as with 26 symbols we are able to produce immense literary and scientific works. Only man, from a certain age onwards, is able to apply to sentences and numbers what is called recursion.
Although language is fundamental in the so-called metacognition, the awareness of reflecting on affectivity, emotions and cognitive processes, and in developing the ability to think of “knowing how to think”, animals are therefore able to make rational decisions. Experiments suggest that not only some animals subjectively evaluate the opportunities to reach their goal, but they also have a subjective internal signal that can be put into play to choose between the different options. In less technical terms, they explore their own opportunities, thinking and acting accordingly.
Animals can think rationally while not having the language of human beings. Language as a means of communication thus becomes a mix of verbal and non-verbal signals is the key to the encounter between animals and human beings.
It is known that dolphins and whales develop a language that is still largely unknown, but very effective for their survival and for the survival of the group. However, they manage to communicate effectively with humans by learning signals and gestures that they would not have learned in nature.
Some experiments with chimpanzees have shown that through gestures, these extraordinary animals can learn simple sentences and sometimes build their own.
Cats, smart animals, but also sly, manage to learn commands, but many studies have shown that sometimes they do not perform them, certainly not because they do not understand them, but because they understand when their execution will not lead to their advantage.
Thus horses and dogs skillfully learn not only the commands, but establish a relationship of empathy and affection thanks also to the perception of the emotions and to the understanding of the facial expression and the tone of voice of the human being.
The Most Intelligent Animals
In addition to language and mathematics, we must take into account the intelligence that animals develop for their survival, for this reason there are different types of intelligence. Science considers animals “intelligent” when they are able to find solutions to an obstacle, they can learn the teachings of humans or other animals, they can learn from an already experienced situation and not repeat mistakes. Therefore we should not consider smart only the animal that can communicate with us.
Here are the animals that science consider more intelligent, even if it is only a small part of all those smart animals in the world.
Chimpanzees. Regardless of whether chimpanzees look incredibly like humans, they have the ability to think in some ways like humans! They manage to govern the environment in which they live and to use tools such as twigs or stones to achieve certain goals. The ability to communicate is one of the most developed skills in the chimpanzee, which manages to be understood using a rich sign language.
Dogs. Despite the degree of intelligence varies according to the breed to which the dog belongs, man’s best friends easily learn new skills and are able to adequately respond to human teachings. The dog learns with great ease and, if properly trained, is a valid support in certain rescue operations or as a companion for the disabled and the blind. The bond that is able to tighten with man is unique among all animal species. His acute memory allows him to recognize people and become attached to them.
Octopuses. Among the animals that inhabit the sea is that of superior intelligence. They are skilled hunters, capable of using complex strategies to find their prey. Subjected to a learning test, the octopus proved to be able to imitate the behavior of its peers and, in front of a jar containing a prey, solved the problem in a surprising way, opening it to take possession of the unfortunate animal.
Dolphins. They have an articulated communicative system, made up of ultrasounds and movement patterns. These cetaceans are very sociable and, if properly trained, are able to learn the technical skills that you will have seen in the tanks of the dolphins of the aquariums. Characterized by advanced communication skills, it is believed that they are also conscious of themselves, having the ability to recognize themselves in front of a mirror!
Cats. Whoever owns a cat will surely have noticed how sensitively they are, as well as being incredibly agile. They will not be able to learn as fast as dogs, but they too have the ability to memorize teachings from their masters! The cat is an intelligent animal as it is extremely fast in learning. Furthermore, if you try to observe your cat’s reaction to an obstacle, you will notice that he is perfectly capable of finding a solution to the problem that has arisen.
Mice. It is no coincidence that they are used in many laboratory experiments. They have a long-term memory that can make them very smart and clever! Not only that, they are also able to easily adapt to climate and environmental changes. They also have a very complex society organized according to a precise hierarchical scale.
Hawks. By showing great orientation skills, they were used as messengers to convey important information, being able to follow commands and remember the geography of the territory.
Elephants. They are distinguished by its extraordinary memory. The pack leader is able to accurately memorize the position of the other animals in the herd during group movements. Compared to other animals, elephants have a large brain, which they use to give rise to very complex social interactions with other members of their own species. Not only that, elephants are also thought to be able to feel empathy.