8 of the Animal Kingdom’s Most Clever Problem Solvers

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Who ever said Mr. Fix-it had to be human?

1. Crows Make Dining Utensils

They say humans are toolmakers, but crows may be just as handy. The birds are known to pry out grubs buried inside trees with twigs. They’ll then strip off the twig’s bark and bend the end, turning it into a hook to dig out food. (Humans are the only other animals that use hooks!)

2. Hyenas Are Brilliant Teammates

To test whether hyenas were team players, researchers built a rig with two dangling ropes. When both ropes were yanked at the same time, a trap door opened, revealing a stash of food. Not only did hyenas work together to pull the ropes, they did it without training (monkeys, on the other hand, needed lots of help from humans to pass the test). Experienced hyenas even taught rookies in their pack how to do it.

3. Bees Are Efficient Architects

Honeycombs are the most efficient structures in nature. They use the least amount of wax for their size, and the hexagonal design makes the structure amazingly strong. It took humans over 2000 years of puzzling to figure that out!

4. Cows Celebrate a Job Well Done

Research shows that cows can feel emotions like fear and anxiety (and they even worry about the future). Cows also love to fix problems. A 2004 study found that when young cows solve problems, their heart rates increase. They even jump and kick when arriving at a solution—telltale signs that cows love having Eureka moments as much as we do.

5. Clark’s Nutcrackers Are Nature’s Traveling Salesmen

Pretend it’s errand time. You have to visit the supermarket, the pharmacy, and three other stores. All five are at separate locations. What’s the most efficient way to get to each one? Mathematicians call this “the traveling salesman problem,” and it’s harder than you think—it can even stump our best computers. However, it’s a snap for Clark’s Nutcrackers. Each year, these birds collect thousands of pine nuts and bury them in small stashes. When they return to pick up the goodies, not only do they remember where everything is, they can also calculate the fastest route to get them.

6. Pigs Rock at Video Games

When scientists built a snout-controlled game in which pigs had to move a shape across a computer screen and match it with a corresponding shape, they were naturals—they even performed better than some monkeys. Pigs are so smart that European regulators require pig farmers to provide “mentally-stimulating activity” for their swine (boredom makes pigs aggressive), and researchers designed a special video game to keep European pigs busy.

7. Parrots Are Feathered Linguists

Parrots aren’t capable of language, but they are good at imitating it. A parrot named Alex actually learned 100 English words, many of which he picked up without the motivation of food. Amazingly, Alex was able to make up words, too (he called apples “Banerries”—a blend of bananas and cherries). One time, when another parrot mispronounced a word, Alex yelled, “Talk clearly!”

8. Pigeons Make For Great Game Show Contestants

When researchers mapped the brain of pigeons, they discovered the areas for long-term memory and problem solving were wired just like a human’s. Pigeons are also better at game shows than us—studies show that pigeons play Monty Hall at a significantly higher success rate than humans.

Want to learn more about these clever and creative creatures? Tune in to Nova tonight at 9 pm Eastern/8 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.

April 9, 2014 - 12:00pm
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