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Battle of the Brains

Many animals show amazing signs of intelligence.

As You Read, Think About: What are some signs of intelligence in animals?

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Not all gamers are human. Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana recently trained four pigs to play a simple video game. The pigs learned to use their snouts to move a joystick. If they hit a target on the screen, they got a reward. 

The study released earlier this year is the latest evidence of just how smart animals can be. Scientists don’t all agree on what makes an animal smart. But the ability to use tools, solve problems, and learn new skills are usually considered signs of intelligence. Here are some animals that scientists rank among the brainiest.

Not all gamers are human. Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana recently trained four pigs to play a simple video game. The pigs learned to use their snouts to move a joystick. If they hit a target on the screen, they got a reward. 

This study is the latest evidence of just how smart animals can be. Scientists don’t all agree on what makes an animal smart. But the ability to use tools, solve problems, and learn new skills are usually considered signs of intelligence. Here are some animals that scientists rank among the brainiest.

Dolphins

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Dolphins may be the smartest sea creatures. Each dolphin identifies itself with a unique whistle—similar to the way we use our names. Scientists have found that some dolphins can remember the whistles of others they haven’t seen in 20 years!

Also, dolphins use teamwork to solve problems. In one study, two dolphins figured out that they had to pull ropes at the same time to open a container of fish. As they worked, the pair “chatted” about the task by making clicking sounds.

Though they don’t have hands, dolphins are skilled at using tools. For example, some bottlenose dolphins near Australia wear sea sponges on their beaks. Researchers say the sponges are like face masks that protect the dolphins’ beaks as they look for food along the jagged seafloor.

Dolphins may be the smartest sea creatures. Each dolphin identifies itself with a unique whistle—similar to the way we use our names. Scientists have found that some dolphins can remember the whistles of others they haven’t seen in 20 years!

Also, dolphins use teamwork to solve problems. In one study, two dolphins figured out that they had to pull ropes at the same time to open a container of fish. As they worked, the pair “chatted” about the task by making clicking sounds.

Dolphins are skilled at using tools. For example, some bottlenose dolphins near Australia wear sea sponges on their beaks. Researchers say the sponges protect the dolphins’ beaks as they look for food along the jagged seafloor.

Chimpanzees

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A chimp eats termites with a stick after fishing them from a mound.

Great apes—a group that includes gorillas and orangutans—are known for their smarts. Among them, chimpanzees really stand out. In 1960, chimps in Tanzania, a country in Africa, were the first animals observed using tools. Wild chimps use sticks to scoop termites from their mounds—a practice known as “termite fishing.” Chimps often learn this skill by watching others—a sign of how smart they are. 

Some chimpanzees have even matched humans on tests of their brainpower. In a 2017 study in Japan, a group of chimps learned to play rock-paper-scissors as well as a 4-year-old child. And in a memory test, a chimp remembered a series of numbers twice as well as a group of college students did!

Great apes—a group that includes gorillas and orangutans—are known for their smarts. Among them, chimpanzees really stand out. In 1960, chimps in Tanzania, a country in Africa, were the first animals observed using tools. Wild chimps use sticks to scoop termites from their mounds. This practice is known as “termite fishing.” Chimps often learn this skill by watching others. That's a sign of how smart they are. 

Some chimpanzees have even done as well as humans on tests of their brainpower. In a 2017 study, a group of chimps learned to play rock-paper-scissors as well as a 4-year-old child. And in a memory test, a chimp remembered a series of numbers twice as well as a group of college students did!

Elephants

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Elephants comfort each other by "hugging" with their trunks.

Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal—and they put those big noggins to work. Like humans, elephants can find solutions to tricky problems. In one test, an elephant at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., couldn’t reach a piece of fruit hanging from a high branch. It figured out that it could roll a box under the tree and then stand on the box to grab the treat.

In the wild, elephants use their trunks to grasp a variety of tools. They scratch their backs with long sticks and swat flies with tree branches! They also have remarkable memories. African elephants can remember routes to water sources they haven’t visited in years. 

Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal. And they put those big noggins to work. Elephants can find solutions to tricky problems. In one test, an elephant at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., couldn’t reach a piece of fruit hanging from a high branch. It rolled a box under the tree and then stood on the box to grab the treat.

In the wild, elephants use their trunks to hold a variety of tools. They scratch their backs with long sticks and swat flies with tree branches! They also have great memories. African elephants can remember routes to water sources they haven’t visited in years. 

Octopuses

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Octopuses can learn to unscrew jars to get the food inside.

Octopuses have a lot of brainpower in their squishy bodies. They have a central brain and a complex nervous system that enables each of their eight arms to move independently, as if they’re making their own decisions. 

The veined octopus was the first invertebrate to be seen using tools. It carries seashells or broken coconut shells and will hide inside—either for protection from predators or to sneak up on its prey. 

Octopuses are known for another type of sneaky behavior. In 2016, an octopus in an aquarium in New Zealand made a daring escape. It squirmed through a tiny opening in its tank, scooted across the floor, and wiggled down a narrow pipe that led to the ocean.

Octopuses have a lot of brainpower in their squishy bodies. They have a central brain and a complex nervous system. This system lets each of their eight arms move independently, as if they’re making their own decisions. 

The veined octopus was the first invertebrate to be seen using tools. It carries seashells or broken coconut shells. It will hide inside the shells—either for protection from predators or to sneak up on its prey. 

Octopuses are known for another type of sneaky behavior. In 2016, an octopus in an aquarium in New Zealand made a daring escape. It squirmed through a tiny opening in its tank and scooted across the floor. Then it wiggled down a narrow pipe that led to the ocean.

What Do YOU Think?

1. Based on the article, what are some reasons animals use tools?

2. How is a dolphin’s unique whistle similar to a human name?

3. How does the author support the claim that octopuses have a lot of brainpower?

1. Based on the article, what are some reasons animals use tools?

2. How is a dolphin’s unique whistle similar to a human name?

3. How does the author support the claim that octopuses have a lot of brainpower?

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