Goldfish, pigeons, termites… These animals whose intelligence is underestimated

Goldfish, pigeons, termites… These animals whose intelligence is underestimated

The scientific community continues to discover new aspects of animal intelligence. While it is well known that chimpanzees, elephants and crows have astonishing cognitive abilities, other species are underestimated. However, they are also capable of performing feats.


In the collective imagination, the goldfish has little sense. He would also have a memory of a few seconds. This belief is so widespread that the expression “goldfish memory” is often used in everyday language to refer to a person who does not shine with their memorization skills.

However, a study, published in 1994 in the very serious Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, shows that this reputation has no scientific basis. Its authors trained several specimens of goldfish to activate a lever allowing them to feed, which allowed them to discover that these aquatic animals have a sense of time.

But that’s not all. Researchers from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University claim in an article, published in 2022 in the journal Behavioral Brain Research, that goldfish would be capable of driving vehicles in a terrestrial environment. Scientists came to this conclusion after creating a device that allows a goldfish to move on land. It is, in reality, an aquarium connected to a rolling, robotic base, which reacts to the movements of the fish. If the animal swims to the top of its water tank, the vehicle moves forward; it stops if the fish moves backwards.

The research team trained six goldfish for several days so that they learned to fly the craft. They had to hit a target, which took the form of a pink cardboard, to obtain food pellets as a reward. Over time, the fish were able to reach their target faster and faster, without getting lost. The academics concluded that goldfish know “transfer (their) representation of space and (their) navigation capabilities to a completely different terrestrial environment“. Not bad for an animal that has no concept of time!

The pigeons

There are those who love them and those who hate them. But, regardless, most people agree that pigeons are a nuisance, especially in cities, where their droppings cause a lot of damage. Nevertheless, we could learn a lot from its birds.

First of all in terms of spatial orientation. If the majority of us struggle to find our way without consulting Google Maps, some of these birds are capable of finding their aviary hundreds of kilometers away, without any apparent landmark. The scientific community still does not know how to explain precisely how this sixth sense which allows them to orient themselves over long distances works, even if the hypothesis considered to be the most probable is based on magnetoreception.

In addition, the pigeons would have another talent that is surprising to say the least. They would be able to tell the difference between a Picasso and a Monet. In any case, this is what a study published in 1995 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Its authors explain that these birds are capable of recognizing the works of these two painting geniuses thanks to their formidable sense of observation. Even more impressive, the pigeons can even distinguish between impressionist paintings and cubist canvases. A skill that some human beings are completely lacking in.


Animated cinema loves to depict squirrels as hyperactive animals who have an obsessive relationship with food. And there is some truth in that: these small mammals spend a large part of their time looking for something to eat. Acorns, hazelnuts, walnuts, chestnuts, conifer seeds… Squirrels are opportunistic omnivores who adapt their diet according to what they find in their natural environment.

Their love for good food pushes them to demonstrate great intelligence to protect their loot. In 2010, American researchers noticed that squirrels are clever at hiding their food reserves when they feel they are being observed by a potential thief. So, they sometimes dig holes in which they pretend to bury acorns to mislead animals that are a little too curious. “Creating a deceptive cache involves some pretty advanced decision-making. It meets the criteria for tactical deception, a behavior previously thought to be reserved for primates.“, Dr. Michael A. Steele, one of the academics behind this discovery, told the New York Times.

Furthermore, squirrels seem to organize their food reserves intelligently, and not haphazardly. A study, published in 2017 in the journal Royal Society Open Science, explains that these animals with bushy tails would take into account different factors before deciding to hide this or that food, including its perishability and its nutritional value.

This method would help them remember the location of their different hiding places. “Squirrels can use the grouping system the same way we do when we put away our groceries. You can put the fruits on one shelf and the vegetables on another. So when looking for an onion, you only have to look in one place, not all the shelves in the kitchen“, explained Lucia Jacobs, co-author of this research, in a press release.

The termites

Seen from eye level, termites are nothing other than insects that eat wooden frames and furniture. We should therefore protect ourselves against it in the same way as any invasive species. However, these insects are remarkable in many aspects.

First of all, they are extraordinary builders. Termites are capable of building extremely complex nests. In 2019, a British team discovered that these insects have built a network of nests in central Brazil covering an area of ​​230,000 square kilometers, the size of Great Britain. As if that were not enough, the interior of these achievements would make the best engineers green with envy because they are built in such a way that they allow temperature regulation and ventilation control. Termite mounds are also made up of pores – more or less large – which promote the drainage of rainwater, and make them resistant to flooding.

The know-how of termites in matters of architecture is all the more impressive because it is not based on chemistry as has long been thought, but on physics. Franco-Belgian researchers explain in an article, published in 2023 in the journal eLife, that these insects sense the geometric shape of structures, and more precisely their curvature. This way, they would know that it is wiser to add pellets to curved areas than to flat surfaces.

However, there remain gray areas to be clarified regarding the exact functioning of termites. But their nests are so well thought out that they inspire architects like Mick Pearce. The latter was inspired by the principle of the termite mound to build the Eastgate Center, a retail and office building located in Harare, Zimbabwe.

About author

Giovanna Pirri (Nutritional Biologist) Graduated in Biological Sciences with a thesis on the nutritional approach in the diabetic patient, she graduated with full marks in Health Biology at the University of Padua in 2008 . In 2011 she passed the State Exam and qualified for the profession of Nutritional Biologist . She obtained the Master in Human Nutrition in Milan, and remains constantly updated through characterizing courses on the universe of food. [email protected]