Lizards as Smart as Birds, Mammals?

The deeper we delve into the animal brain, the more we find our fellow creatures are smarter than we thought.

Take the anole lizard, which scientists just discovered can work out a novel problem as well as a bird or mammal—a “completely unexpected” result, study leader Manuel Leal, a biologist at Duke University, said in a statement.

Leal and team presented four lizards with a wooden block that had two wells, one of which was empty and one of which had a tasty worm inside covered by a cap. Each reptile in the study bit or bumped the cap that covered the worm out of the way, thus passing the test.

When the scientists covered both wells, the lizards still removed the cap covering the worm—associating the color or brightness of the chip with the food. Lastly, when the worm was placed under the other cap, the lizards first went for the cap that had previously held the worm. But two clever individuals quickly figured out it was the other cap that held the prize.

“We named these two Plato and Socrates,” Leal said.

(Read “Animal Minds” in National Geographic magazine.)


An anole decides which cap to flip.

Photograph courtesy Manuel Leal, Duke University

Lizards aren’t the only surprise animal brainiacs. In Eugene Linden’s 2002 book, The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity, he describes several amazing anecdotes of animal intelligence—my favorite being the story of an octopus, which, when given a slightly spoiled shrimp, stuffed it down the drain while maintaining eye contact with its keeper.

I got to interview Linden in 2009 when I covered a story about a curious octopus who had disassembled a valve in its Santa Monica, California, aquarium, flooding 200 gallons (757 liters) of seawater into nearby exhibits and offices.

The octopus, which lives only a year and has a clam for a cousin, already “flies in the face of conventional wisdom of where you look for intelligence,” Linden told me. (See a photo gallery of smart animals.)

“It’s enjoyable to speculate that nature doesn’t always follow our rules [when] it decides to create an intelligent being.”

That’s especially true of slime mold, which most would put in the most lowly of positions. But in 2008, Japanese and Hungarian scientists captured the Ig Nobel in cognitive science for proving that slime mold can navigate a maze, we reported at the time.

When placed in a maze with food sources on both ends, the organism had spread “like mayonnaise on a slice of bread,” said Ryo Kobayashi of Hiroshima University in Japan.

But after about ten hours, the mold had abandoned the maze’s dead ends and inhabited only the most direct route between the food sources.

And of course, there are those animals that are as smart as us—like monkeys that can solve math problems with the same success rate as college students.

Such results “suggest we humans should keep our egos in check,” Edward Wasserman, an experimental psychologist at the University of Iowa, told National Geographic News in 2009.

“We are certainly not the only intelligent animals on Earth.”


Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.