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The extraordinary talents of animals

The extraordinary talents of animals

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Human beings may believe they are the smartest of creations and that animals don’t measure up, but some animals, birds and fish easily disprove that theory.

Aside from chimps and orangutans, slippery fingered burglars don’t hold a candle to the average masked-faced raccoon. In a 1908 study done by ethologist H.B. David, raccoons were able to pick complex locks in fewer than 10 attempts, even after the locks were rearranged or flipped upside-down.

Various studies conducted from the 1960s to the 1990s found that raccoons boast an impeccable memory, and they are also able to recall solutions to tasks for up to three years. However, don’t try and sneak up on them. Thanks to their broad hearing range, raccoons literally hear earthworms moving underground, and they’re sure to hear you.

If you’ve ever second-guessed yourself while trying to remember an online account password (oh my, this really hit home for yours truly), know that you have stooped to sub-squirrel intelligence (ouch!). According to a Princeton University study, gray squirrels are capable of remembering where thousands of nuts are buried for months at a time. They’ll even use maneuvers to trick would-be nut takers; in a 2010 study, squirrels who knew they were being watched dug fake caches for their nuts, making a show of digging holes and patting them over with dirt while hiding their precious nuts under their armpits or in their mouth until they could find a more suitable hiding spot elsewhere.

In the bird category, studies have shown that crows know the basic facts of physics. Not only can crows recognize faces to differentiate between predatory and nonthreatening species, they have been known to change entire migration patterns to avoid farms where crows have been killed in the past, and may even memorize city garbage routes so they can snag the inevitable food droppings on trash day.

And speaking of birds, most people are aware that pigeons were used during war as messengers and prized for their ability to remember people and places for many years at a time. But pigeons can also multitask, dividing their attention between multiple stimuli at the same time in order to accomplish multiple tasks in a shorter period of time. This is a remarkable feat and one that few animals can duplicate.

Traveling from the bird category to farm animals, pigs may as well be man’s best friend, according to a 2015 paper from the “International Journal of Comparative Psychology.” Like dogs, pigs have been shown to understand emotions, demonstrate empathy, solve mazes, learn simple symbolic languages and, most adorably, make best friends. As some of the smartest animals in the world, the youngest pigs even put our youngest humans to shame. In an experiment where piglets had to use mirrors to discover the path to a hidden bowl of food, piglets as young as 6 weeks old learned the concept of reflection within a few hours — a milestone that takes baby humans several months to grasp.

In the aquatic world, marine biologists insist that octopi are master escape artists. The tentacled creatures have proven time and again their talents for popping lids off screw-top jars, compressing their bulky bodies through slit-small holes and climbing impossibly out of aquarium tanks to their freedom. Otto, a German aquarium octopus, was even known to throw rocks at the glass on more than one occasion and spray water at overhead lamps to short-circuit the annoyingly bright lights.

Dolphins are often cited as the second smartest animals on Earth due to their relatively high brain-to-body size ratio, the capacity to show emotion, and impressive mimicry of those who research them. Now, findings from the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi suggest dolphins may also be the second-sneakiest animals on Earth.

When dolphins at the Institute were trained to pick up litter in their tanks and exchange them with trainers for fish, one dolphin named Kelly discovered a way to game the system. By hiding scraps of litter under a rock in her tank, Kelly discretely tore single sheets of discarded paper into multiple pieces, then turned them in one at a time to maximize her fishy reward. Kelly’s clever deception, it seems, was no accident; researchers say she did it all on purpose.

Finally, dogs, those lovable creatures that touch our hearts and souls, continue to earn and cement their position as man’s and woman’s best friend. Aside from being completely adorable, they’re also amazingly smart. They have emotions, they learn tricks, they recognize their owners, they can sense others’ feelings —and that’s not even a smidgen of all of the clever things that dogs can do. According to the science news website, dogs are as smart as a 2-year-old child. Based on a language development test, average dogs can learn 165 words (similar to a 2-year-old child), including signals and gestures.

Even better still, dogs in the top 20 percent in intelligence can learn 250 words, far surpassing human babies.

Peg DeMarco is a Morganton resident who writes a weekly features column for The News Herald. Contact her at

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