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Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, University of St. Andrews – Measuring Intelligence in Wild Animals

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram of the University of St. Andrews compares the intelligence of wild animals to those socialized to human contact.

Sarah Benson-Amram is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of St. Andrews where she works on theLaland Lab. Her research interests are focused on animal social behavior, cognition, and the use of acoustic communication to understand social complexity in mammals. She earned her Ph.D. at Michigan State University.

About Dr. Benson-Amram

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Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram – Measuring Intelligence in Wild Animals

How do you give an IQ test to a hyena? My colleagues and I faced this problem while investigating the intelligence of wild spotted hyenas in Kenya. Disney’s “The Lion King” portrays hyenas as idiotic scavengers. In reality, hyenas are actually talented hunters that kill 80% of their own food. They also live in large groups with complex social politics and thrive in diverse habitats throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  

For these reasons, we suspected that hyenas should be good at solving new problems. To test that, I presented 62 hyenas with a puzzle, which was a steel box containing meat that could be opened by sliding a bolt latch. Only 15% of hyenas solved the puzzle. We discovered that the keys to success were a willingness to approach something foreign and trying more potential solutions, such as biting or flipping the box.

Does this low success rate indicate that hyenas are not as smart as we thought? This work was done with wild hyenas whereas most research on animal intelligence has been done in captivity; captive animals might be less fearful of man-made puzzles and therefore more successful. My colleagues and I tested this hypothesis with captive hyenas in Berkeley, California. This time, over 70 percent solved the problem! As with the wild hyenas, the keys to success were trying different strategies and not being afraid of new objects; the difference was that captive hyenas fear novel man-made objects far less than their wild brethren.

Our research shows that scientists might draw inappropriate conclusions about the problem-solving abilities of animals if we test only wild or captive individuals. If we are interested in determining the maximum intellectual abilities of a species, then captive animals may be better subjects. However, if we want to know how wild animals are able to cope with novel challenges, we must get out of the lab and into the field.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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