Our Mental Abilities Are Not Entirely Exceptional

We rightfully consider ourselves the smartest species on Earth. Our smartness, however, is not entirely unique. Our mental abilities have not suddenly appeared from nowhere – they must have gradually evolved. So it does not come as a really big surprise to find out that many animals possess certain mental abilities that we traditionally considered uniquely human.

Scientists had been probing into the mental abilities of birds and animals for many years. Now we are certain that we share neuronal abilities – especially those related to language and communication – with animals.

Findings from bird studies

With its resilience and the ability to adapt to any surrounding to survive, the crow was always considered one of the most intelligent members of the avian kingdom. That was a popular belief, but now scientists have proof that crows actually have some neural structures that are similar to humans and that these neurons fire in almost the same way as ours do.

According to a study published just few weeks ago, crows have the ability to count and distinguish between numbers. In this study, scientists concentrated on a specific area of the bird’s brain, the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL) in the endbrain region. The birds were trained to distinguish between groups with different numbers of dots shown on computer monitors. At the same times, the scientists recorded the response of “number neurons” located in the NCL region of their brains. These neurons are known to fire in the presence of numerical stimuli, presented visually or otherwise.

During the experiment, it was seen that these number neurons were activated when the bird was shown a specific number of dots. The crows were able to “distinguish” between different numbers. Being able to process abstract numbers was till now believed to be a mental feat of the highest degree. It is now evident that our numerical abilities have distinct biological roots.

The findings from another recent study on parrots yield insights into this bird’s unmatched ability to imitate vocal signals, like speech or songs. Parrots are “vocal learners,” and this study has uncovered the differences in the brains of these birds that make them superior to hummingbirds and songbirds that are also vocal learners.

Scientists knew that birds that are vocal learners have specific centers in their brains, called “cores,” that control the process of learning. According to the new findings, the parrots additionally have “shells” or “outer rings” structures in the brain to regulate the process. The study was conducted on eight varied species. They also found that these outer rings are larger in those species that are known to be better imitators than others.

What is more, these shells in a crude form were also discovered in the most ancient species of parrot they included in their experiments — the kea from New Zealand. This indicates that these brain structures date back at least 29 million years!

And wait! There are more surprises in store. During this study, scientists noted that most of the core and shell regions of the parrots overlap brain areas connected to movement. They have also discovered some peculiar gene expressions in these overlapping zones. Scientists now believe that these structural differences could explain why some parrots are able to learn to dance to tunes.

Findings from primate studies

The idea that human beings are not the only species on Earth with the unique ability to learn, imitate, and communicate has been playing on in the minds of scientists for a long time. That is why they have conducted studies on primates to understand how these seemingly intelligent animals call to and communicate with one another.

Primates like chimpanzees and gibbons happen to be exceptional linguists! For instance, chimpanzees emit calls with different pitches and volumes to indicate the presence and location of different types of fruits and especially their favorite ones.

Wild chimpanzees of Ivory Coast vary the acoustic quality of their food calls depending on the size of the fruit patch and the nutritive and energy values of the fruit. They also emitted higher-pitched calls to indicate fruits in smaller trees. The chimpanzees called loudly and excitedly when they had to indicate the presence of the Nauclea fruit. These fruits have high energy content, are big and easy to eat, and supposedly taste good. According to the scientists involved in this study, chimpanzees probably have a different call for large food finds in order to convene a gathering of their relatives so that they can socialize.

We know chimpanzees are social animals. The linguistic skills of these animals seem to complement their social behavior. Scientists know that the calls of chimpanzees vary across forests and regions. Researchers discovered that chimpanzees can pick up the ape lingo of a new region after they were relocated. A study was conducted on a group of chimpanzees that were moved from the Netherlands to the U.K. The Dutch chimpanzees preferred a particular type of apple that the English chimps did not like. The preferences of the Dutch chimps did not change upon relocation but when presented with their favorite fruit, they called out to their new mates using the Edinburgh “dialect.” It is evident that Mother Nature equipped these social animals with these sophisticated linguistic abilities so that they could mingle with and be accepted into the folds of a new group.

Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom present opportunities for scientists to trace the origins of language development in human beings. Although the neural abilities of humans, animals and birds are yet to be decoded fully, the above findings help to view our mental abilities in the larger context of animal kingdom.


Chakraborty, M., Walløe, S., Nedergaard, S., Fridel, E., Dabelsteen, T., Pakkenberg, B., Bertelsen, M., Dorrestein, G., Brauth, S., Durand, S., & Jarvis, E. (2015). Core and Shell Song Systems Unique to the Parrot Brain PLOS ONE, 10 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118496

Ditz, H., & Nieder, A. (2015). Neurons selective to the number of visual items in the corvid songbird endbrain Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (25), 7827-7832 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1504245112

Kalan, A., Mundry, R., & Boesch, C. (2015). Wild chimpanzees modify food call structure with respect to tree size for a particular fruit species Animal Behaviour, 101, 1-9 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2014.12.011

Watson, S., Townsend, S., Schel, A., Wilke, C., Wallace, E., Cheng, L., West, V., & Slocombe, K. (2015). Vocal Learning in the Functionally Referential Food Grunts of Chimpanzees Current Biology, 25 (4), 495-499 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.12.032

Image via Kletr / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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