At the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, tucked away in the trees near Chiang Mai, a pair of Asian elephants gazes at two bowls of corn on the other side of a net. The corn is attached to a sliding platform, through which researchers have threaded a rope. The rope’s ends lie on the elephants’ side of the net. If only one elephant pulls an end, the rope slides out of the contraption. To bring the food within trunk’s reach, the elephants have to do something only humans and other primates were until recently thought to do: they must cooperate. Working in synchrony, each elephant grabs its end of the rope in its trunk and pulls, drawing the platform and the treats within reach.
Six pairs of these large animals succeeded in solving this double rope puzzle. A lone elephant would wait as long as 45 seconds for a partner to arrive, showing it knew it needed a buddy to get the job done. Psychologist Joshua M. Plotnik, now at Hunter College, the City University of New York, and his colleagues, who documented these findings in 2011, also noticed that the elephant duos used different strategies for obtaining the food, suggesting that the animals had developed a deep understanding of social cooperation.
In the past century animals have repeatedly surpassed our expectations for their intellect. Koko the gorilla learned sign language; Alex the African grey parrot boasted a spoken vocabulary of more than 150 words; and even invertebrates such as the octopus have been seen using tools in the wild. Until the mid-20th century, we assumed only humans could use tools and learn meaningful pieces of a language. Sophisticated social skills such as cooperation were presumed to be way beyond animals’ cognitive reach. Only now have researchers begun to realize the extent of animals’ social intelligence, their ability to understand and learn from others.
Recent findings suggest that some animals are not only capable of creating social connections but that many use them for survival. As with people, some animals have social needs. They notice when another member of their species is distracted, and they are able to figure out an effective way to get its attention. Animals may teach one another important skills, such as how to use tools. Some critters can even deceive. Intuiting what others know enables them to trick one of their kind for personal gain. The animals described below have some of the most impressive social abilities in the animal kingdom. Studying how they interact is giving scientists new insight into what they know—and a glimpse at what might be the upper limits of animal intelligence.
In our own lives, social intelligence might seem to play second fiddle to, say, the ability to perform calculus or write a book. Individuals who are held up as modern geniuses, however, such as Stephen Hawking or Steve Jobs, have not only exceptional analytic skills but also an extraordinary ability to relate their ideas to a broader audience. These social skills are fundamental to our complex society. Without the ability to form a cohesive group, communicate ideas or collectively solve problems, humans could not have built the great pyramids or the first supercomputers.
Social skills require, first, a basic affinity for others. “You can’t evolve all of the computational systems for social intelligence until you have that tendency that you want to be close to others,” says biologist Louis Lefebvre of McGill University. Not all animals have this. Octopuses, for example, seek one another out only to procreate.
In contrast, zebra finches form monogamous pairs and congregate in groups. In a 2009 study the late biologist James Goodson of Indiana University Bloomington and his colleagues drilled down to the chemical essence of this social instinct: mesotocin, the bird equivalent of the human hormone oxytocin, which is implicated in bonding. When the researchers blocked mesotocin in the brains of the birds, they shrugged off their fellow finches. Females spent less than one third as much time near their same-sex cage mates after the treatment than before it. Extra doses of mesotocin had the opposite effect: the birds became even more social than they typically are.
Goodson and his colleagues also examined the biology of this hormone in other species of finches with different degrees of social affinity. The team found fewer receptors for mesotocin in key spots of the brain in species that were more territorial (less social) than the zebra finch—and more receptors in species that traveled in flocks. Scientists have identified similar patterns of brain chemicals and social preferences in many mammals. In prairie voles, for example, how mates bond with one another and their children is also associated with different levels of oxytocin and vasopressin, another hormone linked to social behavior and bonding.
Know Yourself—and Others
Good social graces also require a sense of the self as distinct from others. This primitive level of self-awareness allows animals to go beyond acting out a programmed set of behaviors for mating or for defense.
Researchers test self-awareness by placing a visible mark on an animal and showing it a mirror. An animal passes the test if it appears to recognize that the dot is on its body as opposed to on the “other” animal in the mirror. It can signal this awareness, for example, by reaching toward the spot on its own body. Great apes, elephants, bottlenose dolphins, orcas and magpies have all passed, suggesting they have more social prowess than animals that simply flock or school together.
The second requirement for social networking is an understanding that others have different mental states—knowledge, desires, beliefs or intents—and that at any given moment another individual might be in a mental state that is different from the one you are in. This ability is called theory of mind. Psychologists often test its development in young children by having a child and an adult observe a researcher place an object in a specific location, say, a ball in a cup. The adult leaves the room, and the ball is moved. After the adult returns, a child with a mature theory of mind understands that the adult does not know the ball has moved, and he or she does not expect the adult to look for it in the new location. Similar theory-of-mind tests are difficult to conduct in animals because it is hard to communicate with them directly.
Nevertheless, we can glean hints from their physiology, such as the presence of so-called mirror neurons. These cells, which have been found in macaques and birds, swing into action when an animal sees another individual doing something. In humans, they are thought to exist in various brain regions, including the supplementary motor area, a small patch of tissue at the top of the head that helps to control movement. Because these cells’ activity patterns mirror the behavior of others and to some extent reflect the movement’s goal, they may enable animals to understand others’ actions, possibly even their intentions. They might underlie the ability to learn motor actions by observation and also buttress a theory of mind.
Mirror neurons have not yet been discovered in dogs, but more than a decade ago psychologist Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College collected behavioral data suggesting that dogs may have some version of a theory of mind. Over the course of 21 months Horowitz videotaped a random sampling of dogs at play in a San Diego dog park. When she analyzed the footage, she noticed some interesting behaviors that suggested dogs could be aware of another dog’s perspective.
The dogs at the park varied how they signaled a desire to play depending on the other dog’s position. If a prospective playmate was already facing it, the dog gave a visual signal—opening its mouth wide or bowing down into that familiar bottom-up play pose. But if the other dog was turned away and otherwise engaged, it might instead give its friend a little nip. “They seem to be noticing whether a dog they wanted to play with was ready to receive their play signal,” Horowitz says. “They seem to be reacting to distinct cognitive states” of others. Based on her research Horowitz has posited that dogs possess at least a rudimentary theory of mind.
Consistent with the mirror neuron findings, many monkeys and some birds have demonstrated in their behavior at least some capacity for theory of mind. Monkeys, birds and dogs are exceptions, however. In most animal species, scientists have failed to see even a glimmer of evidence for this advanced social capacity.
Schools and Students
Among its many benefits, social intelligence confers the ability to distribute information. Scientists have long observed that herd animals can give warning signals if a predator is approaching; for example, a white-tailed deer may flash its conspicuous white tail, pointing it upward before bolting. Now, however, researchers are noticing that some animals that live in groups can teach one another rules of social engagement or ways to create a tool.
Zebra fish, for example, seem to transmit subtle social cues to other members of their school. These small creatures can make an easy meal for larger fish in the wild, so they tend to be cautious of new objects. If they are reared in captivity, however, they show little fear of a moving object, swimming within close proximity of it.
A team of researchers led by biologist Sarah Zala of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna wanted to know if these fish would change their behavior if surrounded by others that acted differently. The group introduced some shy, wild zebra fish to more brazen domestic ones. The wild ones learned from their new acquaintances to be bolder when a moving object was introduced near the tank. Instead of swimming away from it, they joined their fearless new companions and ventured toward it. When the emboldened wild fish were separated from their new friends, they still bravely swam near novel things. The results indicate these fish had not just mindlessly followed the other fish but had learned a new behavior.
Dolphins can convey more intricate behaviors to others. One group of bottlenose dolphins in Australia uses a technique called sponging to find food. Biologist Janet Mann of Georgetown University and her colleagues saw the females sporting a sea sponge on their snout, a technique that seemed to allow the dolphins to push along the seafloor to look for fish and other food without hurting their nose. The scientists sampled DNA from these sponging mammals and compared it with DNA from area dolphins that did not use this tactic. They discovered that the sponging dolphins, but not the others, had a common maternal line. In a report of the findings, the researchers suggested that mothers in this particular group managed to teach this complex act to their daughters.
Mother chimpanzees also use social learning to hand down wisdom to daughters. Young female chimps at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania are much handier at making tools to retrieve termites than are males. Adult females there use long twigs or stems to fish out termites, whereas males are more likely to kill larger game for their meals. In a study published in 2004, Elizabeth Lonsdorf of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and her colleagues found that the younger females spent more time with their mothers learning this skill than did the males, who were more likely to be playing—perfecting their social skills for later battles for dominance, mates and food.
Social learning can be a big advantage for a group or species, which can transmit the most successful strategies to others. Some animals, however, use their social awareness for personal gain by hiding information from potential competitors. A group led by psychologist Federica Amici, then at Liverpool John Moores University in England, trained low-ranking capuchin monkeys, long-tailed macaques and spider monkeys to unlock a box to obtain a food reward. When alone, these monkeys unlocked the box and indulged. But when a dominant monkey was around, the trained animals—especially the macaques—chose to forgo the hidden treat, ignoring the box so as not to reveal how to open it.
Some species of birds engage in a similar type of deceit, bolstering the argument that these animals might also possess some theory of mind. Whether in a laboratory or the wild, Western scrub jays are more likely to move their food stashes when other birds are around. In fact, lab experiments have shown that scrub jays will either move or pretend to move a newly caught worm if they think another bird might have seen them bury it. This behavior suggests some awareness of what the other individual knows and how they can protect their own interests. “Nonprimate species are thinking about these things in some very clever ways,” says psychologist Laurie Santos of Yale University.
At least one of the cooperating Asian elephants in Plotnik’s experiments also learned how to game the social system. The elephant, named Neua Un, figured out that instead of pulling on her side of the rope, she could stand on her end so it would not slip. Then she let the other elephant do all of the hard work. She also moved her trunk every now and then, as if to convince her partner that she, too, was pulling.
Of course, social IQ involves more than knowing how to get another person’s attention or teaching the young new information and skills. A deeper social intelligence, one that allows for empathy and grief, is arguably the intangible, almost indescribable fiber that weaves us together. It is tied to our emotional well-being, and as new studies about longevity are showing, these rich social connections are important to our physical health as well. Although we might not be able to ask animals directly how they think and feel about others, we can watch them for clues.
In a 2010 paper psychologist James Anderson, now at Kyoto University in Japan, and his colleagues described video footage of an adult female chimp named Rosie and her companions, which lived at the nearby Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park, reacting to the death of her elderly mother. Rosie did not eat as much, sleep as soundly or show as much energy as usual for weeks after her mother died, suggesting that the animal may have been in mourning. Other apes, including gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park, displayed similar patterns after the death of a parent or a peer.
Behaviors that suggest grief over the death of a relative or close companion have also been observed in dogs, cats and other species ranging from dolphins to ducks. It is difficult, however, to determine whether a specific behavior—such as waiting for a companion’s return—is an expression of grief or even to what extent various animals can comprehend death.
Grief is not the only complex emotion that animals may feel. Psychologist Frans de Waal of Emory University and his colleagues have demonstrated that chimpanzees prefer actions that will help peers to those that just benefit themselves, indicating that they are inclined toward altruism—a highly social quality once thought to be the exclusive domain of humans.
Social intelligence, as distinctive and intricate as it is, may not be easily separable from other forms of smarts such as problem-solving ability or knowledge of the world. For example, a scrub jay that moves its food stores to keep them secret has performed both social and nonsocial mental gymnastics, including, Lefebvre says, “sophisticated memory mechanisms and time travel [that project] future needs for food.” Yet although brilliance very likely has multiple facets, social cunning is one important—and often underappreciated—element. Indeed, the smarter we humans become about assessing the social intelligence of animals, the more closely related to us they may seem.