Here are four organisms with surprising mental powers.


A video clip at the start of a Washington Post article shows bumblebees trained to pull on a string to get a treat. Other bees, watching one do it, appear able to learn the secret. The one-minute video, often shared on Facebook, is well worth watching. Ben Guarino writes with astonishment:

The bumblebee brain is puny, at least compared with the massive and fatty organ locked in your skull. At about 0.0002 percent the volume of yours, bee brains are close in size to the seeds stuck on a hamburger bun. Thinking about insect brains in terms of size alone, however, is a trap. The intelligence of sesame-brained bugs should not be underestimated.

A study reported in the journal PLOS Biology on Tuesday [10/04/16], for instance, takes bee smarts in a surprising direction: Scientists from the Queen Mary University of London suggest that the “insects possess the essential cognitive elements for cultural transmission,” as they wrote in their new paper. It is possible to teach a single bee a new trick, in other words, and a different bee can learn that behavior from her peer.


You’ve probably seen a swarm of bats blackening the sky at dusk as they emerge from a cave. Flying so close to one another, how do they avoid utter confusion as they utter clicks for echolocation? The interference would seem hopelessly confusing to them. An article from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology looked into this “question [that] has mystified scientists since the discovery of echolocation.” One thing the bats know to do is reduce their call volume in such conditions, a behavior called mutual suppression. Clever experiments at Texas A&M showed how bats demonstrated their smarts in an acoustic room rigged with “robobats” and a clutter of strings equipped with sensors. The researchers found that the collision-avoidance strategy is apparently hard-wired into the bats’ brains, since each individual behaved the same way.

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