Spatial intelligence: How animals navigate physical space

How animals recognise objects, discern distance, and make sense of their environment through unique senses

Edward Tolman

What do animals see?

Spatial intelligence is the type of intelligence which most animals have evolved to excel at. It is the ability to think in three dimensions, to recognize objects, and to navigate physical spaces.

Spatial intelligence is so useful to animals, that many species outperform humans. The brains of flies are a good example: they process visual information four times faster than we do, which is why they are so hard to swat. To the brain of a fly, a human appears to move in slow motion.

Some species have also evolved to interact with stimuli outside our awareness. They can see in infrared, sense electricity, and feel magnetic fields. In other words, their brains are analyzing physical space in a way which humans struggle to even imagine.

Object recognition

Object recognition is an important branch of spatial intelligence. It involves looking at an object – like a piece of food – and recognizing what that object is.

Studies have shown that some bird species, like eagles and pigeons, can recognize objects with remarkable accuracy. During a groundbreaking study, in 2015, pigeons were trained to recognize cancers in mammograms. With practice, these birds performed as well as experienced human pathologists.

In other tests of object recognition, birds actually outperform us. They probably evolved this cognitive skill due to the high demands of recognizing objects while flying rapidly through the air. Earth-bound humans, moving at slower speeds, did not need to evolve such advanced object recognition.

Cognitive maps

A cognitive map is a mental picture that helps animals navigate their environment. Without a cognitive map, an animal would forget the location of its nest after leaving to hunt for food.

This concept was first explored by Edward Tolman in the 1940s. He found that rats could build a mental picture of a maze. After learning the maze, the rats were placed into random corners, and observed using their cognitive map to find their way to the center.

In recent years, Kate Jeffrey has studied cognitive maps in birds and fish. Unlike rats and humans, who generally move on a horizontal plane, these animals are able to swim and fly through three-dimensional space. This demands a more complex map than the kind most mammals rely on.

Long-distance navigation

Many species have an impressive capacity for long-distance navigation. Some birds migrate over thousands of miles, while moths and butterflies, and whales and fish, travel similar distances every year.

These long-distance migrations require cognitive skills that a human brain cannot match. In fact, human scientists struggle to know how some of these species manage it.

Certain animals seem to sense the direction of the earth’s magnetic field. Others may use the position of stars, or the color of the sky. These navigational skills are evolutionary adaptations; they let species spend the winter in warmer climates, without getting lost along the way.

Non-human senses

Some animals have evolved unique senses which help their species to survive. Sharks are capable of electroreception, zebra finches can see in ultraviolet, mosquitoes can see in infrared, and there are hundreds of other examples.

These extra senses help a species find food, or spot an approaching predator. They rely on specialist sensory organs, which send information to the brain. Interpreting this type of information is a form of intelligence that other species might never have needed to evolve.

The word ‘sentience’ is sometimes used as a synonym for intelligence. This word has its roots in the ability to sense. In this context, some animals are more ‘sentient’ than others, where evolution has given them extra senses.


Distributed intelligence

Perhaps the strangest example of spatial intelligence can be found in the mind of the octopus. Unlike most species, octopus intelligence is distributed throughout their bodies; alongside a main brain in the head, each tentacle also has its own mini-brain.

Some scientists think each tentacle can make independent decisions, without consulting the main brain first. Others think the main brain makes the key decisions, like deciding to reach into a hole, then starts to think about something else while the tentacle explores on its own.

How ever it works, there is no better example of an animal brain evolving differently to our own. An octopus’ approach to spatial intelligence is so wildly different to that of a human that it is hard to compare the two.

Research implications

Researchers studying animal intelligence – whether spatial, logical, or something else – must take into account each species’ approach to physical space.

For example, scientists studying dog intelligence used to give their subjects visual tests. The dogs performed poorly, and were dismissed as unintelligent. But modern scientists discovered that dogs have bad eyesight. When dogs were given olfactory tests, they suddenly performed much better.

Tests of intelligence must always be designed to match the subject’s senses. Otherwise, it would be like putting a human in a pitch-black maze, then deciding all humans are bad at navigating when the subject starts bumping into walls.

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