Just when you thought the never-ending debate over whether cats or dogs are the smarter animal reached a conclusion, a dark horse contender comes along — and by horse, we’re talking figuratively not literally, lest we confuse anyone further.
Recently, PBS NewsHour attempted to settle the feline vs. canine intelligence battle by enlisting three scientists — a neuroscientist, a dog cognition expert and a cat behavior and cognition researcher. Although the neuroscientist discovered that dogs have twice as many neurons (brain cells) as cats, another study of a variety of species — ferrets, mongooses, raccoons, hyenas, lions and brown bears — published in late 2017 revealed that the science of animal smarts wasn’t so cut and dry.
One of the biggest surprises from this newer research relates to raccoons, whose brains were found to be similar in size to those of cats, but the masked bandits’ noggins hold as many neurons as dogs’ do. In fact, the ratio of raccoon brain size to neuron amount is on par with certain primates.
“The very large number of neurons that we found in the raccoon cortex fits very nicely with the lore about raccoons,” said neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel. “It matches with how incredibly ingenious these little creatures are and how good at problem solving they are when it comes to finding food.”
Herculano-Houzel and her team studied neuron numbers in herbivores as well as carnivores. They also looked at domesticated animals as compared to wild animals. All in all, their study found that brain size isn’t a true marker of intelligence comparatively, and neither evolution nor breeding favors a species’ body size as it relates to neuron count.
“Intelligence comes in any sized package,” said Herculano-Houzel.
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Brian Hare, the founder and director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, concurred that the spectrum of animal intelligence makes pitting species against each other a difficult, if not entirely foolish, endeavor.
“Asking which species is smarter is like asking if a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver,” Hare told PBS. “Each tool is designed for a specific problem, so of course it depends on the problem we are trying to solve.”
Indeed, a November 2017 issue of the scientific journal Animal Cognition recounts just how adept and innovative raccoons are at a variety of tasks, using their “own particular superpower, their sensitive and agile hands, to explore the world,” reports National Geographic.