Clever Critters

Comprehension Activities


World’s tiniest frog (and vertebrate): https://video.link/w/VeVFc

Snowball the dancing cockatoo: https://video.link/w/oaVFc

Rat school in Africa: https://video.link/w/xaVFc

BBC video on Venus fly trap: https://video.link/w/0aVFc



Rats that save lives… Frogs that pretend to be insects … and plants that can count? This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut to Clever Critters—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.
And I’m Bryce Corbett.
Recently on Squiz Kids, we’ve heard about cluey cockatoos that have taught each other to open sulo bins, genius border collies that have learned the names of hundreds of objects, and precious pigs keeping us safe in the skies. There’s definitely more to our furry, scaly, and feathered friends than we think.
Today, we’ll take you through WHY some animals have these amazing abilities, HOW humans are using clever critters, and WHAT we know about plant intelligence.
Listen carefully – there’s a Squiz at the end!

Bryce, I’m no zoologist—that’s a person who studies animals for a living—but I think there are three main reasons why some animals have developed these incredible abilities. The first is to stay alive! Have a listen to this….. What do you think it is?
Sounds like insects to me.
And that’s exactly what Paedophryne amauensis wants you to think! Actually, it’s the world’s smallest frog, which also happens to be the world’s tiniest vertebrate.
Vertebrate meaning, of course, any animal with a spine.
Exactly. Now these vertebrates, which were first discovered in Papua New Guinea in 2009, are smaller than your littlest fingernail. They’ve evolved to have two very clever behaviours. First, they make a call that sounds like an insect, so that any predator hungry for a lunch of frog’s legs passes on by. Second, they can jump THIRTY times their body length, so if something does get close, they can leap away quickly.
Sure is. There’s a video in your episode notes. The second reason some animals have special abilities is because it makes their lives easier.
Like those cockatoos we’ve talked about on Squiz Kids – one kind was making tools to open up fruits to eat, the others had learned how to open Sulo bins, and taught their friends, too.
I know I’d rather be eating fruit than rubbish! There are lots of examples of animals using tools, even though once humans thought that was what made us special! But my favourite story about animals making their lives easier is about elephants figuring out how to work together.
That’s something smart humans know, too – tough jobs are easier when they’re shared.
Exactly! So imagine this, Bryce. There’s a low table, with two bowls of delicious elephant food on it. But the table and food are behind a barrier. There are two ropes attached to the table, and those ropes stick out past the barrier.
Okay, so the only way to get the food is to pull on the rope, and slide the table under the barrier.
You’re thinking like a hungry elephant – nice one. Problem is, if only one elephant pulls on the rope, it will become unthreaded from the table. The only way to get the bowls of food past the barrier is for two elephants to cooperate and pull at the same time. Not only did elephants quickly learn that they had to work together… if they arrived alone at the barrier, they waited for another elephant to come along.
Clever critters…You said there was one more reason WHY animals do clever things?
This is my favourite… they do clever things to HAVE FUN! I’ve put a video in your episode notes of a clever cockatoo called Snowball who is the first non-human animal to have been scientifically proven to be able to dance to a beat. Snowball has 14 different dance moves. (pause for music) Some animals dance to attract a mate, others to scratch an itch, but scientists have spent a LOT of time with Snowball, and they reckon he’s grooving out just because it’s fun.

We all love a bit of fun. But you mentioned that some of these clever animals are being used by humans – you know what I’m going to ask next…


Well, anyone who’s been to the airport has probably seen customs officers using super smart dogs to sniff out banned items … but did you know that RATS are used to sniff out disease?
What??? Rats have a reputation for spreading disease!
That’s true, but in Africa, giant-pouched rats are better at sniffing out tuberculosis, (pause for sound of coughing), which is a really serious lung disease, than the standard medical screening test. Not only that, but a human scientist takes all day to identify TB, and a rat takes seven minutes.
Wow! Is tuberculosis a big problem in Africa?
Huge. More than a thousand people die every day from it, and the sooner it’s diagnosed —that means detected by doctors —the better your chances at treating it, and recovering from it. I’ve popped a video showing how giant pouched rats are going to “rat school” in Africa in your episode notes.

What are some other examples of how clever animals help humans?
Well, rats are also being used to sniff out unexploded landmines, again saving lives… llamas are being used as guard animals…
Wait, guard llamas?
Sounds crazy, right? Well, llamas are very sociable creatures, and they bond with other animals. So farmers will put them in a paddock with sheep or other herds, and they will instinctively protect them. As an added bonus, they like to eat weeds.
Win, win! Speaking of plants… WHAT do we know about their intelligence and abilities?


Well, you’d think that intelligence only exists in creatures that have brains.. and plants don’t have brains. But some of them do some pretty crazily smart things. Take, for example, a Venus fly trap. It’s a carnivorous plant…
Meaning it eats meat…
Exactly – and as the name suggests, it likes to trap flies. BUT… it uses a lot of energy closing the trap, so it doesn’t want to do that if the fly has already buzzed off. If it uses the energy to snap shut, it needs to know there’ll be energy coming from dinner.
So what does it do?
Believe it or not, it counts. The fly trap has delicious nectar to attract insects… and six tiny little hairs scattered around the inside of the plant. If an insect touches a hair while it’s eating nectar, (pause for sound of timer) a 30 second timer is set. If another hair is touched within those 30 seconds… SNAP! The trap shuts over the insect.
I’m sorry… the plant can COUNT? To 30?
Well, it’s not counting like we think of it. Scientists finally figured out how the Venus fly trap does it last year. This is pretty complicated stuff, but basically, when one hair is touched, it causes the fly trap to release atoms of calcium. In all living things, calcium works as a messenger between cells. A second touch of a hair releases more calcium, and if the two hairs are triggered within 30 seconds, there’s a high enough concentration of calcium to cause the trap to shut.
So it’s the chemistry of the plant that’s doing the “counting”.
Exactly. It’s not really learning numbers and definitely not words… unlike many of the incredible animals we’ve talked about today.

The S’quiz

Question 1. What’s the disease being sniffed out by rats in Africa?
Question 2. Which large animals learned how to cooperate to get food?
Question 3. What kind of bird has 14 groovy dance moves?