Why Bigger Brains Are Better

Leopards, tigers, and bears, oh my!

Let's try a bit of problem solving. There's a box on your desk with food inside, clearly visible and smelling delicious. You've never seen this box before, but you want the food. How do you get into it? By trial and error of course.

That's the same problem that researchers recently presented to carnivorous mammals at nine United States zoos. The results of their study were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that the animals with a larger brain in proportion to their body size were able to solve the problem faster than other animals.

Researchers tested 140 different animals of 39 species to see how long it would take for each of them to get food out of a latched metal cage.

Bears were the best at problem solving

The cages differed in size relative to the animal — the bears and big cats got cages much larger than the otters or foxes — but all contained some kind of tasty treat. You can watch some of the animals tested go through their experiments in the video above.

Bears were the best at problem solving, able to get to the food 70 percent of the time. Meerkats and mongooses, on the other hand, had a 0 percent success rate. Poor little guys.

"Our results are robust, showing that having a larger brain really does improve the animal's ability to solve a problem it has never encountered before," says Kay Holekamp, biologist and author of the paper.

Sometimes, bigger really is better.