8 of the Animal Kingdom’s Most Clever Problem Solvers

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Who ever said Mr. Fix-it had to be human?

1. Crows Make Dining Utensils

They say humans are toolmakers, but crows may be just as handy. The birds are known to pry out grubs buried inside trees with twigs. They’ll then strip off the twig’s bark and bend the end, turning it into a hook to dig out food. (Humans are the only other animals that use hooks!)

2. Hyenas Are Brilliant Teammates

To test whether hyenas were team players, researchers built a rig with two dangling ropes. When both ropes were yanked at the same time, a trap door opened, revealing a stash of food. Not only did hyenas work together to pull the ropes, they did it without training (monkeys, on the other hand, needed lots of help from humans to pass the test). Experienced hyenas even taught rookies in their pack how to do it.

3. Bees Are Efficient Architects

Honeycombs are the most efficient structures in nature. They use the least amount of wax for their size, and the hexagonal design makes the structure amazingly strong. It took humans over 2000 years of puzzling to figure that out!

4. Cows Celebrate a Job Well Done

Research shows that cows can feel emotions like fear and anxiety (and they even worry about the future). Cows also love to fix problems. A 2004 study found that when young cows solve problems, their heart rates increase. They even jump and kick when arriving at a solution—telltale signs that cows love having Eureka moments as much as we do.

5. Clark’s Nutcrackers Are Nature’s Traveling Salesmen

Pretend it’s errand time. You have to visit the supermarket, the pharmacy, and three other stores. All five are at separate locations. What’s the most efficient way to get to each one? Mathematicians call this “the traveling salesman problem,” and it’s harder than you think—it can even stump our best computers. However, it’s a snap for Clark’s Nutcrackers. Each year, these birds collect thousands of pine nuts and bury them in small stashes. When they return to pick up the goodies, not only do they remember where everything is, they can also calculate the fastest route to get them.

6. Pigs Rock at Video Games

When scientists built a snout-controlled game in which pigs had to move a shape across a computer screen and match it with a corresponding shape, they were naturals—they even performed better than some monkeys. Pigs are so smart that European regulators require pig farmers to provide “mentally-stimulating activity” for their swine (boredom makes pigs aggressive), and researchers designed a special video game to keep European pigs busy.

7. Parrots Are Feathered Linguists

Parrots aren’t capable of language, but they are good at imitating it. A parrot named Alex actually learned 100 English words, many of which he picked up without the motivation of food. Amazingly, Alex was able to make up words, too (he called apples “Banerries”—a blend of bananas and cherries). One time, when another parrot mispronounced a word, Alex yelled, “Talk clearly!”

8. Pigeons Make For Great Game Show Contestants

When researchers mapped the brain of pigeons, they discovered the areas for long-term memory and problem solving were wired just like a human’s. Pigeons are also better at game shows than us—studies show that pigeons play Monty Hall at a significantly higher success rate than humans.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Watch: In 1948, Idaho Officials Sent 76 Beavers Parachuting Into Idaho’s Wilderness

A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
yrjö jyske, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When people started building up the area around Idaho’s Payette Lake after World War II, its original residents began interfering with irrigation and agricultural endeavors. They weren’t exactly staging an organized protest—they were just beavers doing what beavers do.

Nevertheless, officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided their best bet was to find a new home for the long-toothed locals. The surrounding wilderness provided plenty of options, but transportation was another issue entirely. Traversing the undeveloped, mountainous terrain would require both trucks and pack animals, and experts knew from past relocation efforts that beavers weren’t fond of either.

“Beavers cannot stand the direct heat of the sun unless they are in water,” department employee Elmo W. Heter explained in a 1950 report [PDF]. “Sometimes they refuse to eat. Older individuals often become dangerously belligerent ... Horses and mules become spooky and quarrelsome when loaded with a struggling, malodorous pair of live beavers.”

To keep Payette Lake’s beavers healthy and happy during the journey, their human handlers would need to find another method of travel. As Boise State Public Radio reports, that’s when Heter suggested making use of their leftover WWII parachutes.

Two beavers would sit inside a wooden box attached to a parachute, which could be dropped from an airplane between 500 and 800 feet above their new home in the Chamberlain Basin. The cables that fastened the box to the parachute would keep it shut during the flight, but they’d slacken enough for the beavers to open the box upon landing. After testing the operation with weights, Heter and his colleagues enlisted an older beaver named Geronimo for a few live trials.

“Poor fellow!” Heter wrote. “You may be sure that ‘Geronimo’ had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that three young females went with him.”

Once Geronimo had certified the safety of the mission, the team began migrating the whole beaver population. During the fall of 1948, a total of 76 beavers touched down in their new territory. It wasn’t without tragedy, though; one beaver fell to his death after a cable broke on his box. Overall, however, the venture was deemed much safer (and less expensive) than any trip on foot would have been. And when department officials checked in on the beavers a year later, they had already started improving their ecosystem.

“Beavers had built dams, constructed houses, stored up food, and were well on their way to producing colonies,” Heter wrote. As Idaho Fish and Game’s Steve Liebenthal told Boise State Public Radio, the area is now part of “the largest protected roadless forest” in the continental U.S.

You can watch the Idaho Fish and Game Commission’s full 14-minute documentary about the process below.

[h/t Boise State Public Radio]