Surprising stories of animal intelligence

By Alex Potter

We all know the greatest hits when it comes to intelligence in the animal kingdom, but here are some unexpected additions.

If I asked you to name the smartest species around you’d almost certainly name at least one of these three: chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins. While these are undoubtedly intelligent animals there are some creatures who might not be getting the recognition they deserve. One may even be purring in your lap right now...

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House cats

Cat owners the world over will have endless stories of their cat’s cunning plans for finding food and evading baths; however, a cat’s ability to process and apply information works far beyond getting tasty treats and avoiding water. Cats learn by observing and repeating observed behaviours, hence the term ‘copycat’. One particular cat, named Nora, has shown the exceptional ability cats have to turn what they see into action. With her owner spending her days teaching children to play piano, Nora noticed the keen level of attention her owner would give to the notes the children were playing, and not to Nora. Always looking for the spotlight to be on her, Nora applied what she had been observing and perched herself up at the piano. Tapping the keys with her paws, just like the piano students, she was instantly lavished in the attention of her owner and the children. In playing the piano, Nora has been able to observe and pinpoint the exact action that wins attention, and act it out for herself, even replicating the way a piano student sits to the delight of all who watch her.


A favoured prey of our household cats, rats, are often relegated to the category of pest. However, researchers in Africa have been training rats to detect the smell of tuberculosis in saliva samples. Through a series of training exercises, the rats are taught how to sniff out the different samples, and then alert their trainers to which samples contain TB. Rats were chosen for this important process because not only can they detect the different scents needed to identify a sample, they are also highly intelligent and quick to train. Once fully trained, these rats take only 7 minutes to accurately identify a tuberculosis sample – a task that would take a human scientist a full day of testing.


From disease stopping to showstopping, Nellie the pig demonstrates how animal intelligence runs deeper than just performing learnt tricks. When presented with a series of challenges, including putting different shaped items in a hoop, Nellie uses her creativity to try and solve the problem. While she has been taught to put round objects through a round hoop when asked, when presented with objects that are not round, she appears to compare the shape of the object with the hoop. Deciding that the object is the wrong shape and won’t fit in the hoop, she chooses not to complete the task, despite her trainer’s requests to attempt it. Nellie’s ability to compare shapes gives us an insight into how pig brains process spatial awareness and can mentally problem solve different tasks.

So the next time you’re looking for intelligent company, maybe try a piano lesson with a cat or a spatial awareness challenge with a pig!