A red panda explores the puzzle box during the test

Puzzle Boxes at Zoos Unlock the Secrets of Carnivore Intelligence

How smart are animals is an issue that’s been debated over and over again, especially in charismatic mammals that humans are attached to.

Dr. Sarah Benson-Amaran at the University of Wyoming wanted to find out, and zoos around the country were ready to help. She designed an experiment to analyze different zoological carnivore’s reaction to a puzzle box containing food reinforcement. Her box was given out to 140 different animals, in 39 different species. The box was scaled to the size and strength of the animal, filled with a treat, then placed in the exhibit. The success rate, time, and types of behavior used to access the food was recorded.

To analyze the data, Dr. Benson-Amaran separated her subjects by family, grouping related carnivores together. She compared the success rates of the families to absolute brain size, relative brain size, and the size and complexity of the social structures the animals form in the wild. The results were surprising. Animals who lived in complex social groups (such as meerkats) did the worst, whereas more solitary animals (such as bears and raccoons) showed far superior performance. This raises some important questions about carnivore intelligence.

Living in a large and socially structured group requires intelligence, but this study shows that it may be a very different type of intelligence than the brain uses to open and operate physical puzzles. The animals that were the most successful at opening the box were those with the largest relative brain size, not those with the largest or most complicated social arrangements.

This result is fascinating, but raises even more questions. Can animals with smaller brains still develop social intelligence, while not problem solving abilities? What about brain size increases the ability to solve complex puzzles? What would happen if the same study was conducted in omnivorous, or herbivorous animals?

Zoos and aquariums help develop an understanding of species every day, and Dr. Benson-Amaran’s study is just another example of the fascinating science the zoological community can help develop.

For more on Dr. Benson-Amaran’s study, check out her journal article here.

Photo property of New York Times. All rights reserved. 

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