Animal Intel
Lesson Activities

Introductory Activity:

1. Begin class by asking students what they think intelligence is.  What behaviors or characteristics typically signify intelligence? Is there a difference between “smart” and “intelligent” and, if so, what is that difference?  How can they tell if a person is intelligent?  Is there a way to tell if animals are intelligent?

2. If students think there is a way to tell if animals are intelligent,  ask them which animals they think are the most intelligent?  Write their answers in a list on the board.  (Accept all reasonable answers; list can include great apes like chimpanzees and orangutans, dolphins, elephants, dogs, cats, sheep, parrots, octopi, and mice.)  Ask students why they think the animals they listed are more intelligent than those not on the list – bears, or goldfish, or grasshoppers, for example.

3. Ask students to think about those characteristics and behaviors that contribute to intelligence. Are they present in the animals listed?  Did they affect their suggestions?  Ask students to match intelligent characteristics and behaviors to the animals on the list.  Write them on the board next to the animals and/or have students write them down in their notebooks.  (For example: Elephants\Memory, parrots\learn vocabulary, Chimpanzees\use tools, etc.)

4. In pairs or small groups, depending on how many computers are available, have students log on to the National Geographic “Animal Minds” Photo Gallery. Ask students to click through the images and note:

  • Which animals are on their list already, and which aren’t. If there are any animals in the gallery that are not on their list, students should add them at the bottom.
  • Which behaviors and characteristics are listed in the “Smarts” category, and add them to their list of behaviors and characteristics of intelligence.
  • What, if anything (such as experimental findings or studies), is listed as evidence or proof of the animal’s intelligence?

5. Discuss what makes these particular animals intelligent. Were there shared characteristics among the animals in the gallery? On the list you developed as a class? Was there anything in the gallery that didn’t come up on the class list, or vice versa?  As intelligent humans, is there anything that animal intelligence tells us about ourselves?

Learning Activity 1

1. Look at the list of intelligent animals on the board.  Are crows on that list?  Students saw the New Caledonian crow in the “Animal Minds” photo gallery, and learned that crows are problem solvers and tool users.  Ask students what, if anything, they already know about common crows.  Have students log on to the American Crow page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to learn more about the distinctive characteristics of crows. Ask students to answer the following questions in their notebooks, or you can distribute them as a handout:

  • Where are crows commonly found?
  • Describe their family and social structures.
  • List some of crows’ special skills or behaviors.

2. Ask students, based on information they found on the American Crow page, the Animal Minds gallery, or just their general knowledge, what crows do that lead them to be considered among the most intelligent of animals?  Explain to students that crow intelligence is significant because many of the behaviors and characteristics displayed by crows were once thought to be possessed only by mammals. Why is that important? Discuss.

3. Although all types of crows are found to be fairly intelligent, the most intelligent crow species is the New Caledonian crow, as students were introduced to in the Animal Minds gallery.  These birds display characteristics and skills not even found in some great ape species.  Tell students that you are going to show them a video clip showcasing some of the distinctively intelligent behavior found in the New Caledonian crow.  As they watch the video, ask students to note some of the unique or remarkable skills displayed by the birds.  Play “Hook, Line, and Sinker” Clip and pause approximately 3:40 in, when the lab experiment begins. (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.)  Ask students what intelligent behaviors or characteristics they noticed being displayed by the birds in the video.  Why do scientists think this is important? (Tool use was previously thought to be exclusive to great apes and humans. Only two other non-human species make tools, which is an indicator of sophisticated thought process.)

4. Resume the video clip, and ask students to notice what steps are taken in the experiment to fairly evaluate the crow’s intelligence.  When the clip is finished, follow up with students and review the question – how did the experiment evaluate the bird’s intelligence? (It set up steps for “meta-tool use” – using one tool to use, modify, or improve on another tool, rather than just directly using a tool.) How is the crow’s tool use relevant to human evolution? (Meta-tool use is crucial to human development and intelligence.)  What can we learn about humans from the crow’s behavior?

Learning Activity 2

1. In the video clip of the New Caledonian crows, students saw scientists conduct an experiment to assess the intelligence level of New Caledonian crows.  What were the different elements of the experiment?  What did it accomplish?  Why did they conduct an experiment in a lab instead of continuing to observe the birds in the wild?

2. Tell students that there is a particular biologist at the University of Seattle in Washington who is also interested in crow intelligence – specifically, their ability to recognize human faces.  Dr. John Marzluff has designed and conducted several experiments to measure how crows recognize human faces, and how they perceive human threats.  Ask students to read this New York Times article on Marzluff’s work (which you can print out, or have them read online), and consider the following questions about his experimentation process:

  • What were Marzluff and his team trying to achieve with their investigation?  Did they have a hypothesis or theory?
  • What materials were necessary for the investigation?
  • What were the steps taken by Dr. Marzluff and the team to carry out the experiment?
  • What were the results of the investigation?

Review students’ responses.  Ask students if they think that Marzluff’s experiment was successful. Why or why not? Discuss.

3. Tell students that you are now going to show them a video clip of the next stage of Marzluff’s facial recognition experiments with crows.  As students watch the video, have them consider the same questions above about the experiment and investigation process.  Play “As the Crow Flies” clip. (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.) When the clip is finished, review students’ responses.  Do they think that this experiment was successful?  Why or why not?  Ask students why they think it is important or significant to measure this aspect of crow intelligence?

4. Recall the Introductory Activity and the list of intelligent animals created by students.  How can they be sure that these animals possess the intelligent behaviors and characteristics that we ascribe to them?  We can observe their behavior, but it important to remember that, as Dr. Russell Gray pointed out in the video clip about the New Caledonian crows, sometimes instinctual or low-level behavior can appear as if it’s very sophisticated.  Either in class or as a homework assignment, have students explore additional scientific experiments and research that have been done and/or have contributed to our understanding of animal intelligence.  Students should find one or two notable examples and write one page summaries of the experiments or findings, using the questions from the Marzluff article and video as a guideline.  Students can present their summaries to the class.

Culminating Activity

1. Now that students have seen and heard several examples of experiments designed to assess intelligence in animals, tell them you would like them to create experiments of their own, using the scientific method.  (They do not have to actually conduct these experiments, just design them!)  Like tool use in the New Caledonian crows, or facial recognition and intergenerational information sharing in Dr. Marzluff’s experiments, students’ experiments should focus on measuring a specific element or area of intelligence or mental acuity of one specific animal.  Students can work individually, in pairs, or in small groups.  This can be assigned as an in-class or homework assignment.

2. Have students present experiments to the class, and explain how their work might contribute to a greater knowledge and understanding of animal intelligence.  Encourage class discussion.

3. As an optional extra-credit opportunity, if students have designed an experiment that can be conducted in class or at home without harming or endangering any animals, they may conduct their experiments as designed and present their findings to the class in the form of a lab report.

  • Marci Norris

    I love your show. Today I wanted to comment on the Monarch Butterfly episode. Just to say that the commentators observances about the ‘wrong design’ of its wings is all wrong. We have limited information and the mystery of their successful migration attests to that. However, that their wings were designed….I embrace wholeheartedly. The butterfly was designed by the Creator, Jehovah, the true God. Jeremiah 10:10. Whenever mankind tries to copy any of His work, mankind deliberately works to re-create something that was deliberately designed in the first place. Man does not copy something that chanced into being. However, he is always a student and not the master of what he surveys and attempts to copy. So, we may call something a bad design because we do not have all the facts – we don’t fully understand what we behold. However, since the design did not originate with us, we should give due credit to the Creator. Man has never imagined anything that he has not seen prior in the designs or ‘laws’ or principles already existing in nature. If we learn and apply from our Creator’s word, our purpose here on this earth, He may allow us to grow in our understanding, but we will never learn it all. He will always exceed us – to our joy and eternal wonder. Because of what humankind has done to this earth, Jehovah will soon intervene to save it from complete ruination and will be pleased to bless the work of the hands of those who love Him, each other, and the paradise of living wonders that fulfills His purpose. At that time, man and the butterfly will look each other in the eye with true understanding. Ecclesiastes 3:11; Romans 11: 33-36.

    Thank you.

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