That’s sort of a hard question to answer. I’d like to say my axolotls are plenty smart for what their lifestyle is- they certainly are capable of learning, because they know that someone standing in front of the tank means they might get fed, and since I hand-fed them at one point they also associate my fingers with food. But I don’t know what the extent of their problem-solving ability actually is.
People often see my axolotls continue searching for food that’s lying directly in front of their faces and call them dumb, but what they don’t realize is that axolotls have poor vision and that it’s difficult for them to see details and objects if they aren’t moving. (Think along the lines of the t-rex in Jurassic park, ignoring how inaccurate that portrayal of dinosaur vision actually was.) An axolotl will snap at anything that moves, but in order to find inanimate pellets they’ll actually ‘sniff’ along the bottom until they bump into something that feels promising.
As another caveat, axolotl eyes, being on the tops of their heads, also probably leave a big gap in their vision directly in front of their noses.
So any experiment I would try to do to determine my axolotls’ ‘intelligence’ would be necessarily limited by the fact that their vision is poor and they rely primarily on other senses (smell, their lateral line). I think that this is an issue with much of what people assume about animal intelligence- an animal that can’t figure something out isn’t dumb, it just has different senses and different behavioral patterns than we do.
So while I don’t think my axolotls are necessarily at the cognition levels of dogs or even creatures like crocodiles and other intelligent reptiles, I do think they have more potential than we might give them credit for.
There hasn’t been a whole lot of research on amphibian intelligence, but in general they seem to respond to classical conditioning. A species of frog can learn to avoid poisonous or distasteful prey, a species of salamander can recognize landmarks placed next to food dishes, etc. There’s a decent amount of species out there that have some form of parental care and other social behaviors such as territoriality.
There isn’t a whole lot known about axolotl behavior in the wild, which is especially sad considering how quickly they’re disappearing, but they appear to be mainly solitary, with no parental care whatsoever. Certainly axolotls housed together don’t display any social behavior whatsoever that I’ve seen unless they are a male and female interested in mating. (Or biting an arm off; sometimes arms get mistaken for food.)
So anyway, I guess my answer to this question summed up is that my axolotls are exactly as smart as they need to be.
I got up close to a beaver yesterday which was really really cool. Ive never seen one of these dam building ancient marvels of Canada in the fur before. Amazes me out how I’d be at the right place at the right time to catch an encounter like that. Seriously, I really contemplated, should I go for hike in this first snow fall? Should I take the tripod? How much should I layer up to stay warm but not end up all sweaty? Which route should I take? Right up the side of the mountain the way I usually go, where it will be be icy and treacherous, or around the side of it, through the swampy lowlands? All these indecisive questions left me to arrive at the exact moment, stumbling upon one big fat beaver right up on land just chilling in the fresh snow all prehistoric like, like something right out of one of those ice age cartoons. He (or she) didn’t seem bothered by me at all, letting me get up close and snap some pictures. Eventually he turned and slowly waddled peacefully into the icy cold waters giving me a really good look at one of the most unusual and useful tails in the animal kingdom. He swam for a bit on the surface before diving down into the dark depths below. I can only imagine the underwater labyrinth home he’s built down there.
Oneohtrix Point Never, “Zebra” from R Plus Seven (Warp, 2013)
(photo by dejan chiou)