Can Animals Be Too Smart For Their Own Good?

Sometimes, clever creatures can really get under our skin. Meet the amazingly adaptable creatures that people dub a “nuisance."

Published 10 Sept 2018, 10:49 BST
Lucky coyotes like this one in Allen’s Park, Colorado, don’t have to figure out how to ...
Lucky coyotes like this one in Allen’s Park, Colorado, don’t have to figure out how to navigate life in the city.
Photograph by Konrad Wothe, Minden Pictures, National Geographic Creative

They say nobody likes a know-it-all, and that seems to be true for some very intelligent, and sometimes very annoying, animals.

Take raccoons, for example. Being smart enough to adapt to our human-centric world is pretty incredible, but for them it can be a liability. Their intrusions on our gardens and garbage get them a bad rep at best—at worst, it gets them killed by humans who see them as pests.

A recent study published in the journal Animal Behavior suggests that the wildlife best suited to living among us—the most flexible, adaptable, and clever—are exactly the ones that end up in conflict with humans.

And that made us wonder: What are “nuisance” animals, and how can studying their intelligence help us learn to live peacably with them? (Related: Raccoons Pass Famous Intelligence Test—By Upending It).

Too Smart for Their Own Good?

Coyotes can recognise and remember which trucks among similar-looking vehicles in a research facility are for feeding versus vet visits. Bears are so good at opening coolers they’ve doing product testing at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. And check out this gymnastic genius raccoon who unscrews a bird feeder with his feet.

Theft, damage, and scaring the bejesus out of us can make some animals be seen as “troublemakers” or a “nuisance” when they “are simply adapting to the new environments we have created,” says Lauren Stanton, a doctoral student at the University of Wyoming’s Animal Cognition Lab and co-author of the recent study.

Typically the “nuisance” part is all in our perception, says Alistair Bath of Memorial University of Newfoundland, who specialises in mitigating human-wildlife conflict.

In North America, for example, a bear knocking down your front door and killing all your chickens would be seen as “a problem or nuisance bear that must be killed,” Bath says. While working in the Abruzzo, Molise and Lazio National Park in Italy, though, he met a woman to whom that exact thing had happened. She didn’t blame the bear or want it killed—her problem was with the park officials “who she believed weren’t providing enough food for the bear; of course in nature bears find their own food,” he says.

As for raccoons, Bath says, they’re just behaving like wild animals, looking for food - it just happens to be in our trash cans. It’s only our reaction to that—non-plussed or livid—that makes that situation a problem. And only human action, like securing food waste more effectively, can change the situation.

Arms—and paws—race

Understanding how animals think can also help humans cope with them humanely while avoiding being outsmarted, Stanton says.

The coyotes’ ability to recognise people and trucks, for example, caused Stanton to tweak her own behaviour by being very careful to take the right vehicle, “otherwise I risked spooking off my study participants.”

Likewise, Shane McKenzie of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation has learned something from how raccoons perceive and outsmart a live trap. McKenzie has live-trapped raccoons in the Chicago area and says the urban trash pandas are far more cautious of box traps used to catch them for study than their country cousins are.

“Rather than simply entering the trap to obtain the food reward like their suburban cousins,” the raccoons, right from the beginning, would instead reach out and use “their incredible dexterity to pick up the food item, removing it and not triggering the trap.”

To outwit these clever critters, the researchers took the simple action of wiring all food rewards in urban box traps to the back of the trap.

You’ve won this round, human. Can’t wait to see how Rocky outsmarts that.

Have a question about the weird and wild world? Tweet me or find me on Facebook. Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Friday.

This story was originally published on  

Read More

You might also like

Here we go again: Hopeful, fake animal news keeps spreading amid pandemic
Pets are helping us cope during the pandemic—but that may be stressing them out
Invasive snakes move their bodies like lassos, a totally new mode of locomotion
These shrimp parade on land. Now we know why.
Ancient wolves that played with humans likely evolved into today's friendly dogs

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved