With a few notable exceptions, humans are pretty smart. But where did our intelligence come from? Assuming you’re among the 39% of Americans that accept evolution (see this poll for some interesting statistics), you’ll probably agree that at least some of our brainpower came from our animal ancestors.
For scientists, that’s not the end of the story, it’s only the jumping-off point that raises many tough-to-answer questions. How “smart” are animals? Are some species smarter than others? Why and how did intelligence evolve in the first place? Answering these questions will teach us about the processes that govern human decisions and the ways we think about the world.
These are issues we’re interested in tackling here on the Hyena Project, since we’re under the impression that spotted hyenas are rather intelligent (and that’s not just because we love them). Our observations show that they can recognize other clan members individually - and even determine their emotional and physiological states - by sight, smell, and sound. They understand the advanced concepts of cooperation and reconciliation. Perhaps most telling of all, hyenas live in this fabulously complicated dominance hierarchy, where rule-breakers are punished by severe aggression. A hyena that can't figure out the social rules will suffer injuries or even death, so there's probably very strong selective pressure for high intelligence among hyenas.
So, it seems like our hairy, drooling study subjects can teach us a thing or two about intelligence. But here comes the problem; how in the world can we measure intelligence in animals, especially in a species like the hyena?
I love cliffhangers (especially when I know the answer), so I’m going to leave you to chew on that one for now.