I think the general public has a somewhat comical view of animals and their mental abilities. From chickens playing tic-tac-toe at county fairs to “stupid pet tricks” on TV to humorous news clips of zoo animals entertaining the masses. It isn’t much of a résumé. Perhaps one of the mental barriers to seeing evolution in a clear light is regarding animals as buffoons; and being related to a buffoon is unacceptable to many people.
But if we actually give animal behavior more than a cursory glance, we find that many groups exhibit extraordinary abilities on par with humans, if not quanititatively then qualitatively. My favorite is the birds, specifically the corvid family. (Monkeys get all the attention, the diaper wearing media whores.) New Caledonian Crows have demonstrated their ability to use tools. Watch the video of a crow forming a wire tool, but look closely or you’ll miss the key moment.
“Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays” by Candace Savage
“Ravens In Winter” by Bernd Heinrich
Evolution is truly fascinating. There’s a video of a squirrel tap dancing around a snake and bravely nibbling on its body. The quality isn’t that great, so the identity of the snake is a bit of a mystery. It acts like a rattlesnake, but it doesn’t have the arrow shaped head, which is characteristic of the viper family. However, non-venomous gopher snakes mimic the behavior of rattlers to scare away predators. And on top of that, even if it were a rattlesnake, the squirrel has a genetic advantage. Adult squirrels have a partial immunity to rattlesnake venom. They can take several hits of venom and still survive. They even have a physiological mechanism to heat up their tails, which fools with the snake’s heat sensing ability. The moral of the story is that our human preconceptions about what’s going on in the natural world are often wrong.