—— Goats that solve puzzles, pigeons that can read, octopi freeing themselves from screw-cap jars: animals surprise us with their intelligence time and again. Here we present a few of them and their amazing abilities.



Pigeons have an impressive sense of direction and, as carrier pigeons, have been appreciated as feathered messengers for centuries. An experiment showed that aside from just transporting words, they can also recognize them. On a computer screen, they accurately distinguished real English words such as “bust” from fantastical combinations of letters such as “bewk.” The pigeons had learned the probability of letter sequences in English—and were thus using a mechanism that is also used by elementary school students. Despite this, however, the sanctity of the mail is not in danger—although pigeons can recognize words, they probably don’t understand their meaning..


Killer whales are ingenious, as demonstrated by the orca Willy in the film Free Willy from 1993. His fellow whales prove their intelligence every day when hunting. If they discover a seal on an ice floe, they work as a team. One orca positions itself next to the floating piece of ice, while the others swim together towards it, creating a rushing wave that washes their prey off the slippery surface. Another technique was observed by staff in a marine park. An orca regularly regurgitated the fish it was fed so that the pieces floated up to the surface of its tank; then it waited for greedy seagulls to fly down to get the fish—and leapt up to devour the gulls. The orca’s tankmates observed this—and were soon seen using the exact same technique a short time later.


Octopi are some of the smartest creatures in the ocean. Which is unsurprising, since these mollusks have up to nine brains. The central brain is joined by additional clusters of neurons in the tentacles—something science describes as distributed intelligence. Octopi use it to make their way through mazes, climb out of aquariums or to construct a rolling mobile home out of coconut shells. Octopi can even uncork bottles and can also handle screw caps. One octopus freed itself from a glass jar with a screw cap—by unscrewing the lid from the inside without much ado.


Members of the crow family are con­sidered especially clever. They put nuts in front of passing cars to get them cracked and throw stones into containers to get to the liquid as it spills out. The New Caledonian crow, which lives on the eponymous islands, takes things a step further and makes its own tools. To get to grubs in rot­ting tree trunks, it hacks at twigs to get them to the right length, then pokes the twig into where the grubs are hiding and thereby agitates the grub into biting the twig. Then the crow then pulls out the twig with grub attached. In experiments, some crows even connected up to four twigs together to form a composite tool—thereby managing to reach their snack.


Farmers tell stories time and again about goats opening gates to get to lush meadows. British researchers decided to take a closer look at this ability. In order to get to rich fodder, goats had to pull levers out of an apparatus and flip them upward—much like on a gate latch. Nine of twelve goats had learned the technique by the twelfth try. And they still remembered the trick even ten months later—and could get to the desired treat within seconds.