Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hyenas are Smarter than You Think

At least when they are working together:
Spotted hyenas may not be smarter than chimpanzees, but a new study shows that they outperform the primates on cooperative problem-solving tests.

Captive pairs of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) that needed to tug two ropes in unison to earn a food reward cooperated successfully and learned the maneuvers quickly with no training. Experienced hyenas even helped inexperienced partners do the trick.

When confronted with a similar task, chimpanzees and other primates often require extensive training and cooperation between individuals may not be easy, said Christine Drea, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University.

I think this study supports the notion that "Intelligence" is not a simple, single thing, but a bundle of skills, some of them only loosely connected. Hyenas survive by hunting as a pack, so they are good at seeing how their actions will work together with those of a companion to achieve a desired goal: if I make this zebra turn while you go for the hind leg. . . . Chimps by contrast rarely do that sort of thing, so they aren't naturally good at it. On the other hand they were able to learn with enough work, which shows an advantage they have over hyenas: they can learn to do unnatural, unfamiliar things if they have to.


Thomas said...

Have you read the (sci-fi) novel, "A Fire Upon the Deep," by Vernor Vinge? Excellent space opera, and it includes a really cool species which only achieves intelligence in packs.

John said...

Sounds interesting.