Plenty of information exists demonstrating the intelligence of humans, apes and monkeys. From people’s technological inventions to apes that have learned sign language, it’s clear that the ability to think on advanced levels exists across a variety of species. Now, researchers have a new animal to add to the list of rational thinkers: crows.

That’s right. Crows. While the large black birds are often thought of as creatures with a caw on par with nails on a chalkboard, and capable of not doing much more than picking at roadkill and piercing the insides of trash bags, it turns out that there’s much more to the brain power of these birds.

Crows’ analogical ability surprises, impresses researchers

Researchers from the Department of Biology at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Moscow, Russia, tested two hooded crows, assessing their ability to engage in IMTS (identity matching-to-sample) tests. After initially being trained using a food-based reward system to identify and match certain shapes, numbers or colours, they were then tested on their relational-to-matching sample (RTMS) behaviour. This part of the study involved arrangement of shapes so that neither test pairs matched the sample pair in the middle. For example, if the sample card showed two same-sized squares, the crows would have to select two same-sized circles instead of two different-sized circles.

Not only were the crows able to accurately choose the correct card, but – and this is the part that most impressed the researchers– they did so without explicit training.

Ed Wasserman, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa and corresponding author of the study, expressed the significance behind the fact that the crows chose the correct card without training. “That is the crux of the discovery,” he said. “Honestly, if it was only by brute force that the crows showed this learning, then it would have been an impressive result. But this feat was spontaneous.”

The study, appropriately titled, “Crows Spontaneously Exhibit Analogical Reasoning,” was published in Current Biology. It was also authored by the Russian researchers, who provided in-depth details and conclusions regarding the finding. That article states:

Many theorists deem analogical thinking to be uniquely human and to be foundational to categorization, creative problem solving, and scientific discovery. Comparative psychologists have long been interested in the species generality of analogical reasoning, but they initially found it difficult to obtain empirical support for such thinking in nonhuman animals.

In its summary, it concludes:

Initial evidence suggested that only humans and apes can successfully learn RMTS with pairs of sample and test items; however, monkeys have subsequently done so. Here, we report that crows too exhibit relational matching behaviour. Even more importantly, crows spontaneously display relational responding without ever having been trained on RMTS; they had only been trained on identity matching-to-sample (IMTS). Such robust and uninstructed relational matching behaviour represents the most convincing evidence yet of analogical reasoning in a non-primate species, as apes alone have spontaneously exhibited RMTS behaviour after only IMTS training.

Findings demonstrate the need to stop “human arrogance” that ignores animals’ wisdom

“For decades such reasoning has been thought to be limited to humans and some great apes. The apparent spontaneity of this finding makes it all the more remarkable,” said Anthony Wright, neurobiology and anatomy professor at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School. He hones in on the fact that many humans tend think that they are superior, hardly even considering that other animals think in ways they do.(1)

“We have always sold animals short,” Wasserman said. “That human arrogance still permeates contemporary cognitive science.”(1)

In other studies, ravens — a kind of large-bodied crow — has been shown to alter their social interaction outcomes in order to obtain food and protection. Furthermore, pigs have been able to move computer cursors around on a screen in experiments that proved their ability to differentiate between scribbles they recognized and ones they did not.(3)

The list goes on.

Elephants have been able to demonstrate self-awareness by recognizing themselves in mirrors, while squirrels exhibit behaviors which indicate that they are able to interpret the behavior of others.(3)