Neuroscience assumes that the human brain is the standard to which all animals’ brains should be compared. But, many animals show unique talents, and very advanced intelligence and social behavior. Their intelligence is quite different from humans and in some ways is superior. Many avenues of research show unique animal brains with unique talents in the animal update 2013.
A famous philosophical article asked whether we could possibly understand what it is like to be a bat. In fact, it is impossible for humans to place themselves in the experiences of creatures with completely different sensory and motor systems. The structures in the brains of animals are quite different than humans and evaluating their function by comparison to human brains does not explain the very advanced behavior.
Most animals display much more intelligence than would be expected by simple anatomical comparisons with human brains.
The intelligence of elephants, dolphins, whales, octopi, and primates are now well known. Recently, it was found that dolphins remembered the vocalizations of their tank mates from twenty years before—an incredible feat of memory. The advanced intelligence of therapy dogs has been described previously. The discovery that many animals have culture has been previously described.
This post will highlight several small brained animals with different brain structures than humans but exceptional intelligence—birds, reptiles, and bees. There are many other possible examples of very small animals with intelligence, such as ants and termites, but among insects bees have been studied the most. The post will conclude with hints concerning how such small brains can have advanced capabilities with brain structures that are different from humans.
A recent article in Science, called birds “feathered apes,” because of their many remarkable abilities. Birds need a relatively large brain for their size in order to fly. But, compared to humans and other large animals their brains are very small.
Just recently, the cockatoo was noted to have extraordinary ability to use multi step techniques to unlock a very complex cage. To retrieve a nut the bird first removed a pin, then removed a screw, then removed a bolt, then turned a wheel 90 degrees, and then shifted a latch sideways. These birds were untrained and were able to figure out how to do this in less than two hours. Others were able to learn by watching. Also, once they were able to open one of the locks, they never forgot how and were able to do it immediately.
Also, cockatoos recently completely disproved the notion that animals can’t dance (see video) and, in addition, they are noted to have object permanence at the level of the four year old human or an ape.
Jays, along with parrots, songbirds, and crows, are among the most intelligent birds. Recently, it was reported that an entire flock of jays were observed mourning a fallen comrade for 48 hours without any foraging.
Caledonian crows have demonstrated outstanding memory, including remembering people and cars that annoyed them years later. They demonstrate metacognition and counting, as well as making and using advanced tools better than many primates. They have upgraded tools, molding a piece of wire into a hook to get a hard to reach treat. They have used three different tools for one task, more than chimps.
Birds show advanced planning and art such as the advanced complex nests of bowerbirds that use perspective.
Birds use smells to navigate thousands of miles.
Songbirds name their offspring and are known by that sound for their entire life. Finches learn grammar by listening to mentors and use strict syntax rules. The order of different tweets is important, more complex than monkey language.
A previous post discussed the possibility that human language evolved from birds singing and syntax along with bee’s symbolic language. (see post, Music and Evolution)
The gray parrot, Alex, studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, showed advanced language skills and arithmetic. Alex invented new words such as calling an apple a “banerry” for a combination of banana and cherry. Alex understood zero, could count and add numerals up to 8. Before he died he told Dr. Pepperbert “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.”
Lizards are much smarter than assumed in the outdated notion of the human brain region called the “reptilian brain”. Reptiles were supposed to only be concerned with survival and instinct. But, research in natural settings shows this is not true.
In fact, reptiles show advanced social behavior with pair bonding, recognition of family and care of children. They demonstrate social learning, play behavior, and cooperation. The green iguana male was observed in natural settings to guard his mate to avoid other males intruding on future children. They share nesting and build complex burrow systems that are used over and over and improved upon. Those that don’t stay the whole time with the nest return to check on the eggs.
When babies hatch they often duck back in and observe other babies to see if it is safe. They follow the cues of others that are hatching. Some jump up and down when they find others. They form groups of siblings called pods, and stay together for months. They rub up against each other, and wag their tails like dogs. They walk in a line with the chosen leader, checking on others. They rub each other’s heads before swimming back to their original territory. They watch for predators together and protect each other.
Recently, Anoles have demonstrated counting, advanced learning and problem solving. Anoles did even better than birds, including crows, learning extremely rapidly. They required less attempts in opening caps and remembered techniques, exactly, days later. They invented techniques that they don’t use in the wild. They were able to use multiple different strategies and could unlearn incorrect approaches rapidly reversing course. (Most mammals have difficulty in reversing course – Anoles did it instantly).
The bee has a very tiny brain, but remarkable abilities. For many years, scientists could not accept the individual bee’s remarkable abilities and therefore attempted to explain them with an amorphous concept of “hive intelligence,” which has never been explained. In fact, it is now clear that individual bees have extraordinary intelligence and abilities with a very small, unique, brain.
Bees understand and communicate with a symbolic language that is quite complex. Using this language they can share detailed locations including angles of related to the sun, travelling routes, and qualities about locations. Bees forage for information. They can count scenes and find their way out of mazes. Bees understand abstract concepts (above/below and difference), sequences, combinations, and are able to solve the very advanced mathematical problem called the “Travelling Salesman Problem”—finding efficient routes between many different stops. Bees are able to also include the quality of the flowers at the stop as well as the routes. They do not copy other bees who make bad choices of flowers. Bees understand future rewards.
Recently, a new form of communication with flowers was found using electric signals—bees are positively charged flying in the air and plants have negative charge with weak electric fields. When bees land on a flower, it changes potential. Bees can detect and distinguish different flowers by their electrical signals. Flowers combine the electrical information with bright colors, patterns and fragrance to attract bees.
Remarkably, bees are able to self medicate their hives. They understand where medicines are, how to mix them, and specifically when to apply them (with specific fungal infections in the hive).
Bees are extremely communicative and flexible social animals, with complex social, navigation and communication behaviors. Bees show “emotions”—when stressed they become pessimistic with increased expectation of bad outcomes. They have altered neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and octopamine associated with depression in vertebrates and humans.
They are able to build a honeycomb—a remarkable feat of engineering. It is the most efficient and the strongest way to store honey that has been conceived by humans—the hexagon will hold more honey for the expenditure of effort than triangles or squares. (The termite engineering is even more spectacular building what is equivalent to a human skyscraper, with advanced tunnels for refrigeration and air quality control – see post on termites). A special bee circles providing heating of semi molten wax. Each bee works in a six mm compartment next to each other, kneading and tamping the wax into place. Using advanced physics, the wax flows at a specific temperature with surface tension stretching the wax. The wax then pops up forming a point, that becomes an angle of the hexagon. These fuse with other walls forming a perfect hexagon.
But, perhaps the greatest talent of the individual bee is a kaleidoscopic visual memory, with which, the bee can fly up to five miles, remembering everything they see.
Big Brains Not Necessarily Better
How are small-brained animals able to perform such remarkable feats? Each has a different type of structure that in its own way performs advanced tasks. It is interesting that some of the neurons are somewhat similar to human neurons that are involved in high cognitive function. The structures perform the same relays of information, but in totally different ways.
BIRDS: In a new wiring diagram of the bird’s brain demonstrates a series of modules that can be likened to mammal organization, including different types of hubs with widespread networking like the human brain. It has nodes that appear to function like the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex without a cortex.
Some advanced cognitive abilities in birds correlate with a region similar to the human striatum, called the medio-rostral neostriatum. (Humans do use the striatum and cerebellum for motor function, but also for advanced unconscious habit learning and memory).
A region called DVR, the dorsal ventricular ridge, has cells that are equivalent to the human cortex layer 4 that inputs data, and layer 5 that outputs data. In this way, the DVR is equivalent to higher brain regions of humans. In fact, the DVR might be superior in arrangement for advanced language and other cognitive tasks. Birds have a specialized nuclei for vocalization, which is not possible in humans.
One current, but outdated, model of the brain includes three regions, the most primitive “reptilian” basal ganglia, the emotional limbic system, and the neo cortex associated with higher cognitive function. The two higher systems including the cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus are still assumed to be associated with advanced social behavior. But, in fact, the primitive basal ganglia are involved in unconscious motor learning and are critical to human higher function.
As noted above, in natural settings reptiles show very high intelligence including advanced social behavior without the two so-called higher human brain structures. Recently, in turtles regions have been found that, like in birds, are similar to the two cortical layers, layer four for input of data and layer five to output data, but in a region that is more similar to the human’s basal ganglia.
Therefore, both reptiles and birds have unique centers that have neurons that are similar to human cortex, but in completely different structures.
BEES: Because of the obvious intelligence in both individual bees and the hive, the bee brain is the most studied insect brain. It has one million neurons, with forty different types of neurons. The mushroom body (20% of their brain) integrates multiple senses and sends value-based information to other parts of the brain. 100,000 neurons synapse to 100 neurons and code multi sensory learned stimuli. One particular neuron appears to function with reward learning like humans and is similar to human dopamine neurons in the nucleus accumbens. Bee brains, also, have inhibitory neurons like humans.
Bee brains demonstrate advanced plasticity for learning and rewards in their olfactory system, which is highly integrated with a very elaborate visual system. Bees rapidly learn visual, smell, taste, and touch information and can abstract from this information, taking into account social conditions, time of day and location.
Their neuroplasticity is just being researched but it shows advanced dendrite changes similar to human brains (see post neuroplasticity). Bees have been noted to have epigenetic memory acetylation of histones and methylation of DNA for memory.
Bees have many different memory centers and their kaleidoscopic visual-olfactory memory is far greater than humans. The bees remember such extreme detail from the waggle dance language that they can remember short cuts to multiple locations without knowledge of the landmarks or visual scenes.
Bees, like birds and reptiles, demonstrate some aspects of human neural function in totally different structures, with a different form of high intelligence.
Animal Intelligence Update 2013
It is interesting that neuroscience uses animal brains to extrapolate functions to human brains, even though it is impossible for us to understand the animal’s point of view. This appears necessary because of the inability to study live human brains.
Most people believe that fMRI can “map” behavior in humans, while, in fact, this is all theoretical at this point. Recently, regarding our current understanding of brain regions’ correlation with behavior, a leading neuroscientist noted in Nature that:
“The general public might think that this goal has already been achieved; when they read that a behavior is associated with some part of the brain, they take that statement as an explanation. But most neuroscientists would agree that, with a few notable exceptions, the relationship between neural circuits and behavior has yet to be established.“
Therefore, not understanding correlations of behavior and brain regions in humans, it is less likely to be extrapolated from totally different animal brain structures.
Not only do we use animals to gather information about human brains, but most of this research is done in the laboratory. Many recent studies show that animal intelligence and behavior can only be accurately observed in natural settings, which is very difficult. Recently, it was found that laboratory findings in zebrafish, mice, and even flies are different than in natural settings (these animals are very frequently the choices for neuroscience research). Research with highly intelligent animals in labs and zoos often leads to depression and mental illness. Therefore, all laboratory findings about animals are suspect.
Currently, it is not possible to map an exact region for consciousness or subjective experience in humans. Cognitive ability appears in very unlikely places, including microbes. While large brained animals like dolphins, whales, elephants, and primates have advanced cognition, advanced social behavior and unique abilities, small-brained animals do also, using unique brain structures. Birds and bees have unique talents that humans do not have. Surprisingly, other insects also show advanced intelligence. Although bees are the most studied, individual ants and termites also show very unusual talents (see posts ants, termites). Reptiles, for many years considered to be primitive and impulsive, actually have advanced intelligence and social behavior.
Currently, there is no way that humans can place themselves in the minds of other animals, with such different senses and capabilities. Hopefully, humans will realize the tremendous value of these unique animal brains with unique talents before they are all destroyed by human behavior.