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Which animals are smartest: Dogs,

cats or raccoons?
By Jason Bittel, Washington Post, adapted by Newsela staff on 12.11.17
Word Count 1,261
Level MAX

Image 1: In the battle of the brains, raccoons measure up to dogs -— by one measure, at least. Photo: Washington Post photo by
Linda Davidson

Cat people and dog people have long sparred over which species possesses the best brains.

Team Cat points to the felines' self-reliance as a sign of intelligence. The animals can hunt, which
isn't so great for wildlife but does showcase the cunning predator still lurking within lap kitties.
Cats also clean themselves and relieve themselves in tidy litter boxes — or even toilets. They are
generally better at food portion control than their canine housemates, too.

Team Dog cites the canines' ability to learn complex tasks, especially those that benefit humans.
Dogs guide the blind and herd livestock. They sniff out explosives and help find survivors buried
beneath earthquake rubble. They also have strong memories and an impressive capacity to
understand human language.

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But as it turns out, all of this résumé listing may be unnecessary. According to a new study
published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, the best way to measure cognitive ability is to tally each
animal's neurons.

Neurons are cells that communicate via electrical charge. They populate the brain and central
nervous system. They are the units that process information. Measuring intelligence is an
incredibly difficult affair. But Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist,
and her colleagues believe their method of quantifying neurons in an animal's brain, especially in
the cerebral cortex, is the most accurate tool for judging its capacity for complex thought.

So which animal comes out ahead in the Great Neuron Census? Brace yourselves, Team Cat.

"Dogs have about twice as many neurons as cats," said Herculano-Houzel. She is the author of a
book about brains called "The Human Advantage."

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But wait: The average dog is larger than the average cat. Isn't it a given that dogs would have
larger brains and therefore more neurons? This is where things get interesting.

The study found the overall mass of one's gray matter is not what's important. In addition to the
dog and cat, the team examined brains from a domestic ferret, a banded mongoose, a raccoon, a
striped hyena, an African lion and a brown bear. While the brown bear's brain was three times as
large as the dog's, the dog's had more neurons. In fact, the brown bear's neuron count was
similar to that of the cat, an animal whose brain is about 10 times smaller.

To put some numbers in play here, a cat has 250 million neurons in the cerebral cortex to a dog's
530 million. Both species are dwarfed by the average human, who clocks in at 16 billion cortical
neurons.

But one of the more surprising insights from the research has nothing to do with cats, dogs or
people. It's about raccoons. These "trash pandas" have long been dismissed as vermin or vectors
for the rabies virus. But within the raccoon's cat-sized brain lurks a dog-like number of neurons.
So many, in fact, that if you were to look only at neuron count and brain size, you might mistake
the raccoon for a small primate.

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"And that is saying a lot," Herculano-Houzel said. "Because something that we found previously is
that there's a huge difference between how many neurons you find in a primate or in a non-
primate brain of the same size."

Jessica Perry Hekman is a veterinary geneticist at MIT and Harvard's Broad Institute. She said
there are a number of reasons to be cautious in interpreting the study's results. For one, she said,
the link between neuron numbers and intelligence is anything but proven.

"Which isn't to say it's wrong," Hekman said, "but that it's definitely something that they're just
starting out with and collecting information on."

The study also had a small sample size. With the exception of dogs, who contributed two brains
to the study, each of the other species was represented by just one brain. (Good brains are hard
to come by, Hekman acknowledged.)

The study's comparison of domesticated, wild and zoo animals could also have an important
influence on the results, Hekman said. Researchers have found experience affects brain
development. This is especially true in early life: Rats raised in pens with lots of enrichment, like
toys or complicated territory to explore, develop more synapses, or connections between
neurons, than rats raised in barren pens. So it's possible the life history of the analyzed hyena or
mongoose played a role in its brain anatomy. Hekman said she thinks an animal's number of
synapses, rather than neurons, might be a more accurate measure of its intelligence.

But the biggest problem, and the one both Hekman and Herculano-Houzel are trying to solve, is
that intelligence is a tough nut to crack. In fact, it may be several different nuts. Each species has
distinct skills and challenges.

"I'm not even really sure we should call intelligence one trait," Hekman said. "It's a lot of different
things."

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This paper may not be the definitive guide to animal intelligence. Still, it reveals some interesting
data. For instance, why did the larger carnivores like the lion and bear have fewer neurons than
we'd expect for animals of their size?

According to Herculano-Houzel, it's not that larger predators can get away with being stupid. At
the study's outset, she and her team guessed predators would have significantly more neurons
than the prey they hunted, because they reasoned that hunting is a more challenging way of life.
Most lion hunts end in failure, for instance. Every day is a battle to consume sufficient calories to
make it to the next kill. A wildebeest, on the other hand, can fill up on plants at its leisure. These
animals form large herds that minimize their chances of turning into lion lunch.

Instead, the team found lions and hyenas had similar ranges of neurons as prey animals of
relative size. Examples include the blesbok and kudu.

Wouldn't it make sense for evolution to produce increasingly brainy predators, whose cunning
would translate into catching more prey? Well, yes; but even evolution has to work on a budget.

"Neurons, especially neurons in the cerebral cortex, are extremely energetically expensive,"
Herculano-Houzel said. "There is a point where you cannot afford both a huge body and a large
number of neurons."

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The science of comparing animals is still evolving. Herculano-Houzel said it would be great to
consistently incorporate neuronal information with studies of behavior. It would also be valuable to
count the neurons of many brains from the same species to get a better range, as Hekman
suggested. The dog neuron counts came from just two animals. One was a mixed breed and the
other was a golden retriever. Who knows what sorts of differences one might find between
Chihuahuas, mastiffs and corgis?

For the moment, it seems the jury is still out on whether dogs or cats are smarter. Not that a few
million neurons would change a pet owner's mind anyway.

Now, who wants to start rooting for Team Raccoon?

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Quiz

1 Read the article. Select the detail that MOST CLEARLY suggests that researchers should continue
studying the intelligence of animals.

(A) The study found the overall mass of one's gray matter is not what's important.

(B) Hekman said she thinks an animal's number of synapses, rather than neurons,
might be a more accurate measure of its intelligence.

(C) According to Herculano-Houzel, it's not that larger predators can get away with
being stupid.

(D) It would also be valuable to count the neurons of many brains from the same
species to get a better range, as Hekman suggested.

2 Which sentence in the introduction [paragraphs 1-4] supports the conclusion that dogs might be
smarter than cats?

(A) Cat people and dog people have long sparred over which species possesses the
best brains.

(B) The animals can hunt, which isn't so great for wildlife but does showcase the
cunning predator still lurking within lap kitties.

(C) They sniff out explosives and help find survivors buried beneath earthquake
rubble.

(D) According to a new study published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, the best way to
measure cognitive ability is to tally each animal's neurons.

3 Which sentence introduces an animal that might be smarter than most household pets?

(A) Cat people and dog people have long sparred over which species possesses the
best brains.

(B) They are generally better at food portion control than their canine housemates,
too.

(C) They also have strong memories and an impressive capacity to understand
human language.

(D) These "trash pandas" have long been dismissed as vermin or vectors for the
rabies virus.

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4 How is Jessica Perry Hekman introduced in the article?

(A) with an explanation of two reasons why readers should be careful when hearing
these results

(B) with a description that explains why she should be viewed as an expert on this
topic

(C) with an explanation of how the studies were conducted on several animals

(D) with a description of how neurons work with outside stimuli to form connections in
the brain

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