Animal Smarts Challenge! Meet your scientists

Animal Smarts Science Background


Dogs who know over a thousand words, dolphins who can work together to plan new tricks, parrots who can think like a six-year-old child - humans are not the only intelligent animals. Animals show their smarts in many ways. They communicate, play, plan and problem-solve. Some can even recognize themselves in a mirror. Find out how much animals know and how you might help to keep their minds and bodies busy.

"May I please have a bone?" "I’d like to go outside to catch mice." If your dog or cat could talk, this might be what they’d say. But even though your pets don’t sound like this, you and your pet do communicate. Different animals communicate or can learn to communicate in different ways. A gorilla beats his chest, a dog listens to commands, a dolphin follows hand signals.

But communicating is just one of the ways to know that animals think. If you’ve spent time with a dog, cat, bird, or even a hamster, then you know that animals can think.

What do animals think about? A lot of the time, animals are thinking in order to solve problems. They’re not solving math problems or taking history tests. They’re solving problems about how to live. Some animals work together to hunt larger prey. Other animals use tools, such as sticks, to get at hard-to-reach food. "Mmmm, termites!"

When animals are kept in zoos, or even in homes as pets, they still need to solve problems in order to keep their minds and bodies in good shape. Lions in zoos like to play with balls filled with warm water mixed with blood. The smell reminds the lions of catching prey in the wild. Animals that like to dig need a soft area to dig in. Sometimes zookeepers hide an animal’s dinner to make them feel like it is hunting for its food. And animals that are very intelligent like to have toys and games to keep them busy.

Our world is filled with thinking animals. Animals are able to memorize information and ideas. They are able to build on what they know. They are able to notice things that are the same or different. They are able to solve problems and make decisions. They are able to communicate their thoughts. They even play with each other to learn how to get along.

Dog owners are the first to tell you how smart their dogs are. And they’re right. Chaser, a Border Collie (that’s a type of dog), has more than 1,000 toys and knows each one by name. But other mammals are intelligent as well. An elephant can recognize itself in a mirror. Only elephants, dolphins and certain primates - including humans - can do that! When animals are aware of themselves, they are also aware of others. These animals are able to care about other animals, including humans.

Sea lions can learn how to match letters with objects. And dolphins can communicate and work together. Trained dolphins can even work together to come up with new tricks! Think about how hard it is to communicate and work together to plan a project for school. And dolphins can do this without passing notes!

Mammals aren’t the only animals to show intelligence. The octopus uses its brain to change its appearance in order to hide. It can change its color and even its pattern. Octopuses also use tools. One octopus carried around a coconut shell to hide in.

Birds are highly intelligent as well. Alex, a parrot, was able to say hundreds of words, recognize shapes, count to 8 and do simple math problems. Alex was able to put together old words to express new ideas. The first time he tasted cake he called it, "yummy bread"! By the time Alex died, he could communicate like a 6-year-old child.

You can find out about animal intelligence in your own yard or living room. Observe your pet or the animals living in your backyard, schoolyard, or local park. Find a bird or squirrel that you can observe. Then try to enrich their worlds by thinking of games for them to play and problems for them to solve. Watch for signs of intelligence. This can include communicating, playing, planning or problem-solving. Maybe if we can find out what animals are thinking, we can help protect their world, and ours.

Meet Your Scientists

David John Shepherdson, Ph.D.

David John Shepherdson Ph.D.

What do you like most about being a scientist? Science is endlessly fascinating. Knowing more about how the world works and its wonderful complexity increases my appreciation and awe of nature.

Hobbies: Science, outdoor activities (hiking, camping, biking, skiing, and mountain climbing.)

What words of advice do you have about science for kids? Have fun and explore new ideas with enthusiasm. Science is an adventure.

How/when did you discover your love of science? From a very early age - my mother is a scientist and my father a mathematician! I was always interested in nature and particularly in animal behavior.

What is the funniest professional experience you have had? Gosh that’s hard. I have a bad memory for this kind of thing! How about when I took a film crew to video the chimps? The male threw something very unpleasant at the camera man who tried to duck but because he was attached to the camera with his head phones, he brought the camera crashing down from its tripod! That’s probably not the kind of story you want though…

Brian HareBrian Hare, Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology

What do you like most about being a scientist? Answering questions that no one has thought about before or finding ways to answer questions that people have long thought about but did not know how to address.

Hobbies: Doing more science; watching baseball; playing with my dog.

What words of advice do you have about science for kids? Science is totally fun and most importantly it comes in many flavors. Many flavors of science are not traditionally taught until you arrive at college. So keep an open mind about science because there are so many fun questions to answer!

How/when did you discover your love of science? I did an internship at Zoo Atlanta in high school to study the behavior of primates. It was there that I realized that science is as fun as any sport I had played before! I loved thinking about how the mind of another animal works. I really wanted to know what it was like to be a dog or a chimpanzee. So it was then I decided I should be a scientist.

What is the funniest professional experience you have had? Too many to tell. Studying bonobos is a full-time funny profession. They are the silliest animals on the planet to watch. It makes you wonder how they could have evolved because they are so silly.

Nicole Nicassio-HiskeyNicole Nicassio-Hiskey,
Senior Keeper of Marine Life Oregon Zoo

What do you like most about being a scientist? I love working with nature and animals so I consider myself more of a zoologist. I love working outdoors.

Hobbies: Dog training, reading, spending time at the beach.

What words of advice do you have about science for kids? Science is a lot of fun and a lot of work. Find an aspect of science that you love and become great at it!

How/when did you discover your love of science? When I went tide pooling at the beach with a marine biologist in the first grade. He showed me so many animals that I never would have found on my own. I was hooked and knew I wanted to work with marine life.

Amy HashAmy Hash,
Animal Keeper

What do you like most about being a scientist? My favorite part of being a zoologist is watching animal’s behavior. I feel like you get to know an animal so much more by just sitting back and watching at different times of the day.

Hobbies: I have two young children…so I spend quite a bit of time at parks, bike riding, and walking my dog.

What words of advice do you have about science for kids? Get out, enjoy nature, and get dirty!

How/when did you discover your love of science? Since I was very young, I have had a strong love for animals. I wasn’t sure if it would be an aspect of my day to day job, but while attending college, I realized I wanted to work with animals.

What is the funniest professional experience you have had? Not sure about funniest, but I get the best enjoyment out of seeing the animals play with items I have made for them or given them.