Humans are great at a lot of things — but one that we excel at most is being unconsciously biased towards how we see the world!
As such, we have created lots of so-called “intelligence” tests, designed to gauge how the non-human animals with whom we share our planet measure up in the smarts department. But, as we’ve explored in this space before, these sorts of tests are often favour human-like behaviour as the gold standard. For example, the classic mirror self-recognition test is a cinch for species that are heavily visual in their information processing — that is, us, and not, say, notoriously nose-smart dogs.
But even with that caveat, every once in a while an animal will beat us at our own (heavily rigged) intelligence game. Like the Atlantic puffin recently observed by Annette L. Fayet of Oxford University, who was the second puffin the scientist had observed using our most sacrosanct of intelligence markers, a tool.
“This time, the action unfolded in front of a camera: The bird spots a stick and grasps it with a cartoon-bright beak. The bird makes a burbling sound. It turns, as if to face the lens. And then it scratches its chest feathers with the stick’s pointy end.
This was not some nesting behavior gone awry. Puffins collect soft grass for their nests, then hurry into their burrows with beaks full of bedding. The puffin in Iceland dropped the stick after it finished scratching. Hours later, the camera recorded the stick, still discarded, on the ground.”
Puffins now join the 1 per cent of species worldwide that have been observed using tools, a group which includes their feathered brethren New Caledonian crows and keas (a New Zealand parrot). And they also join us; showing humans that, not only are our attempts to wall ourselves off from our fellow animals completely arbitrary, but that species-specific necessity breeds species-specific invention. Smart — “for an animal” — really is smart!