Are Rats Smarter Than Chimpanzees? Comparing Intelligence in Chimps, Rats, and Humans

We often assume certain animals have poor memory skills. If anyone has accused you of "having the memory of a goldfish,” you instantly recognize it’s not a compliment. 

But while some animals retain about as much as you’d expect, other animals’ memory skills may surprise you. 

In today’s post, we’ll be exploring how the memory skills compare between our closest genetic relatives - chimpanzees, and one of our most common pests - rats. 

Watch the fascinating video version of this post by clicking HERE! 

You can also download the audio-only podcast by clicking the download button above. 

#1: Chimpanzees 

Chimpanzees share about 98.6% of the same DNA as humans. So you’d expect their memory to work in a similar way to ours. 

But as it turns out, chimpanzee memory is a bit of a mixed bag. 

For instance, chimpanzees have shown remarkable short-term memory. In a recent Japanese study, a chimp named Ayumu was tested to memorize a sequence of numbers on a screen. 

Despite the fact that numbers have no symbolic meaning to a chimp, Ayumu was able to memorize more numbers in the sequence than the university students who participated! 

This suggests that chimpanzees have stronger short-term memory than humans! But why? 

Chimpanzees are great at remembering sequences and faces because their memory is more visually-oriented than ours. In the wild, this helps them recall which branches to swing from to reach food in a massive tree, for example. 

Since humans have developed more complex communication, it’s believed that we slowly lost our need to capture perfect mental images. 

On the other hand, the contextual, abstract memory of chimpanzees is severely lacking. 

Chimps can only recall specific events in-context for about 20 seconds. For reference, that memory span is shorter than a rat’s! 

#2: Rats 

You might not expect rats to have very impressive memories. But according to recent studies, rats’ minds can store memories of up to 30 individual events in-context. 

Prior to these studies, most animal researchers believed rats had poor long-term memory like other small creatures, which recall only 2 or 3 detailed events from their lives. 

As it turns out, rats have a unique eye for context. In fact, some rats have been known to recognize rats who have treated them favorably, and even sometimes return the favor! 

A recent Norwegian study that prompted rats to share preferable food items, demonstrated that rats can contextualize memories under a value system. 

When a rat provided its partner with the preferred snack (in this case, a banana slice), the other rat was given the option to pull a stick to reward their partner with cereal flakes. 

In this study, the rats who shared the bananas would consistently be rewarded by the other rats much quicker and more often than those who did not. 

The rats not only recognized generosity, but they recognized the specific rat who displayed that generosity, and repaid them for it! 

Cooperative behaviors like this have been crucial to rats’ survival over the years. Their ability to contextualize prior events have helped them establish trust. 

So while rats may not technically be “smarter” than chimpanzees, they are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They can remember our faces, associate them with our behaviors, and act accordingly. 

So be careful if you try to handle an infestation yourself - the rats may literally return with a vengeance! 

If you are worried about an infestation, it’s best to call a professional to take care of it. 

Please contact us at 855-WILDLIFE or visit www.wildlifexteam.com for more information. 

Thanks for reading! 
-Wildlife x Team International 
 

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