The Evolution of Intelligence

Why did intelligence evolve? Perhaps animals evolved certain cognitive abilities, such as long-term memory, because they needed to recognize, get-along with, and potentially even manipulate the behavior of other individuals in their social group. Or perhaps animals evolved certain cognitive abilities because they needed to find and remember the locations of scarce or ephemeral food resources, extract food from a shell, or even move their body quickly through a 3-dimesional environment. Most likely, intelligence evolved as a result of a combination of many of these factors. We are testing hypotheses to explain the evolution of sophisticated intelligence using members of the order Carnivora as a model group. Specifically, our lab has examined innovative problem-solving abilities across a range of carnivore species with varying degrees of social and ecological complexity (Benson-Amram et al. 2011; Benson-Amram and Holekamp 2012; Holekamp et al. 2015; Benson-Amram et al. 2016) and will continue this research with our new study species, raccoons.

This research is being done in collaboration with Dr. Kay Holekamp (Michigan State University), Dr. Ben Dantzer (University of Michigan) and Dr. Eli Swanson (University of Minnesota).

This research was recently covered by the New York Times! Watch a video describing our work created by James Gorman and the team of ScienceTake at the New York Times:

Other videos describing our work with hyenas are available here: