Monday, February 16, 2009

Animals have brains too

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.

3 comments:

ScientistSteve said...

For chewing on your question, I wish I had the mental equivalent of the hyena's bite!

Katy said...

I just read in a book last night that when elephants are born, their brains weight only about 35% of the adult brain, which is similar to humans in that at birth our brains are about 26% of adult weight. In most other mammals, the brain weight at birth is about 90% of adult weight. Any idea of this stat in hyenas? It seems since they have so much information, social and otherwise to learn in their first few years, perhaps they might be similar to elephants and humans in this?

Kate said...

Hmmm, that's a really interesting question, but one I don't know anything about. I would hypothesize one of two things:

1)their brains are relatively small at birth, since their skulls are so underdeveloped, or...

2)their brains are relatively large at birth, since they need to be able to start learning about things like rank relations right away.

Jaime, if you're out there reading this, have you learned anything about this in your skull work?


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