Believe it or not, humans are not the only intelligent species on Earth. Animals are not given enough credit for their intelligence and their cognitive abilities. While most people think that the behavior animals display come from instinct, they actually learn a lot like humans do. There is a social component within animal learning. Social learning is when animals learn by observation or interaction with another animal usually within the same species.

Carel van Schaik and his colleges proposed that cognitive skills of animals are looked at through different lenses within the sciences. There ideas were that field biologists conclude that high level animal skills was a direct result of natural selection, comparative psychologists tend to think that animal learning is a individual endeavor, and anthropologists focus more on the social aspect of how animals learn. While this is just an opinion, these three disciplines all have something in common: the intelligence and cognition in animals is worth studying and often overlooked.

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“Elephant Painting‘ by under CC by 2.0

How Do Animals Acquire Such Cognitive Abilities?

There is no doubt that some skills are instinctual, but many skills are learned socially. Social learning skills can be finding food, building a dam or nest, learning how to properly hunt, etc. A lot of animals learn from their parents and other members of their social group. Evolution plays a role by continuing to select for better learners in some lineages.


Despite the struggle to fully understand them, octopus are among some of the smartest animal species in the world. These marine animals can solve complex spatial problems, remember patterns for the future and even escape from a closed lid jar. These problems and patterns used to study octopus cognitive behavior are set up by human researchers, in which the octopus watches the human and picks up on their behavior. This is an example of how animals learn socially outside of their own species. They use their cognitive ability to have elaborate hunting behavior to help them lure their prey. Through DNA sequencing, researchers were able to see that their genome contains more genetic information that makes certain proteins that govern the growth and interactions of neurons. These amazingly intelligent creature also have a biochemical system that allows them to modify their proteins, which in-turn lets them modify their functions.

“Octopus Escaping A Jar” by YouTube under CC by 2.0


Dolphins run closely beside the octopus for being the smartest marine animal. Dolphins learn and pick up on specific clicks and sounds from others that allows them to know when prey is around, when the group is moving and when others are trying to communicate with them. Dolphins have the ability to learn as individuals as well as passing their knowledge to others. They are a perfect example of social learning between animals within the same species. As far as dolphins learning specific skills for example,  a dolphin named Kelly who unfortunately is in captivity has been trained to keep her tank clean. She is rewarded by food every time she brings up a piece of litter from the bottom of her tank. She also passed this skill down to her calf, which is learning to do the same cleaning behavior.

“Dolphin Intelligence” by YouTube under CC by 2.0



Pigs for some reason have a stigma they are not intelligent animals when in fact they are the opposite. Pigs are very social animals, which makes them easy to train. Candace Croney is an Associate Professor of Animal Sciences at Purdue University has unbelievably taught pigs how to play video games. “The pigs were provided with specially made joysticks that they could control with their mouths or snouts and then tasked with the job of moving a cursor around on the screen to make contact with different target walls that would shrink and move away.” They were successful and could complete the task of engaging in the video game. Pigs also have been given odor tests, and are able to distinguish peppermint from spearmint. This social animal remembers locations,  positive and negative experiences and can recognize themselves in mirrors. Ethologist Kristina Horback observed group communication (vocally) and communal nursing within groups of pigs in an animal behavior teaching barn.

“Smart Pigs” by YouTube under CC by 2.0



Pigeons do not have such a great reputation and many think they are pests and scour the vicinity for anything they can eat. These birds have very impressive intelligence and cognitive ability. Like pigs, they can also recognize their faces in mirrors. What makes them very impressive is their ability to memorize dozens of flying routes and find their way to familiar places that can be hundreds of miles away. In addition to remembering routes, they can also remember hundreds of images they have seen previously. These birds are able to recognize the 26 letters of the alphabet and a study performed concluded that pigeons can distinguish between a Van Gogh and a Chagall painting, based on colors and pattern recognition.

These are just some specific animals that display incredible cognitive ability. There are so many more and intelligence in animals will always be somewhat of a mystery to scientists. As technology advances we are able to uncover more information regarding these behaviors and why they are performed. We as humans learn from watching one another and even though some animals cannot express verbally like we do, they still manage to teach each other everyday skills. Amazing.




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