When I was a kid, I remember reading dated books about natural human history that showed early human ancestors (typically clad in Flintstones-style approximations of what I can only assume were sabertoothed tiger skins), and they explained the process of our evolution, and what forces had contributed to our eventual rise to true civilization (which at the time meant listening to Phil Collins and wearing stirrup pants and jellies.)
Our large brains separated us from the animals, we were told. We learned to create and use tools. To farm and keep livestock. To harness fire. We were convinced that all of this made us better than the beasts.
Of course, in the time since then, we’ve learned that there are animals that do all of those things too. They just haven’t taken it that one step further by building monster trucks, synthesizing bovine growth hormone, or inventing nuclear weapons, all of which truly makes us superior to the dumb beasts of the world.
Still, you have to give the animals credit for being just ridiculously clever, so let’s take a look at a few of them and boggle together at how much smarter they appear to be than we are. They’re at least out there making their way in the world, pulling themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, instead of sitting around at home and watching Jersey Shore.
Art by John Gerrard Keulemans, in the public domain
The Toolsmiths: New Caledonian Crows
We all know that many birds are kind of ridiculously intelligent. They’ve been observed doing things like dropping turtles from great heights to break their shells, or using the tires of passing cars to crack open nutshells. Birds have been shown to show some ability for counting, problem-solving, deception, pre-planning, operating and incredible skills of dancing. And although many birds have a demonstrated ability to use tools, the current master toolsmith of the bird world is the New Caledonian Crow of New Zealand. These birds have been shown to not only use tools but also to create them, and to use one tool to acquire another tool to acquire another tool to get to a food source. Here’s a TED talk from a fellow who built a crow vending machine, where they could exchange coins for peanuts. (I can only assume that this gentleman is now both very rich and also a regular at his bank’s coin-counting machine.)
The Farmers: The Herding Ants
There are actually a surprising number of animals that actively engage in farming. Termite mounds are essentially giant terrariums designed to create optimum conditions for the fungus they like to eat. You might think Leaf-Cutter Ants cut leaves so they can eat them, but actually they’re creating compost for growing their own fungus farms. Ambrosia Beetles grow their fungus farms in trees, while Marsh Snails use their tongues to slice into cordgrass, creating a perfect environment for the fungi they prefer to feast on. Even the oceanic creatures get in on the action: spotted jellyfish are their own living greenhouses, and make use of photosynthesis and their own transparent skins to help them create a rich fungal crop inside their own bodies. (I’m beginning to sense that animals love fungi.) Damselfish, meanwhile, grow algae and are as aggressively protective as a farmer with a shotgun… plus, the algae they prefer are a bit wimpy, and probably wouldn’t really survive without cultivation. If you’ve ever read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, that may sound like a familiar story.
But I was going to talk about ants. Ants are particularly interesting because they don’t raise mere crops like the rest of their fungus-loving friends. They actually farm livestock. Several species of ants keep herds of aphids, which they “milk” for their excrement, “honeydew,” which is extremely sugary. (Before you start judging the ants, remember that humans make a common practice of not only eating all sorts of animal meat but also their mammary secretions and in the case of birds, the byproducts of their menstrual cycle.) The relationship between ants and aphids directly mirrors that between humans and our own livestock animals. The ants get to enjoy good nutrition and delicious treats, plus an extremely reliable food source. They relocate their herds to better grazing when necessary, defend them from predators, clean up their waste (which would otherwise attract unwanted visitors), keep them out of the weather, and even help them reproduce by sheltering, protecting and nurturing their larvae.
New research also suggests that humans aren’t the only ones to use pharmaceuticals on our livestock, or to physically modify them the same way we might castrate calves or dock a lamb’s tail. The ants sometimes nip off the adult aphids’ wings so they can’t fly about on their own. A new study suggests that chemicals the ants track around on their feet may serve as some sort of signal or actual tranquilizer for the aphids.
The Firestarters: Bonobo Apes
Okay, this one’s a little bit of a cheat, but you’re going to love it anyway. This TED talk shows video of bonobos starting a fire, driving a golf cart, playing musical instruments, inventing new uses for tools, and playing Pac-Man. Yeah, you heard me. They weren’t taught these things as tricks, but basically the behaviors were modeled for them, and they picked them right up and started experimenting for themselves.
So I guess we’re just not as special as we thought we were, nor are animals quite the dumb beasts that they’ve been made out to be… and we’d better be careful, because we’ve taught them how to start fires. I’m just saying.