Animals and Curiosity

Clara Battle

What do you view as curiosity? Are animals curious? Richard W. Byrne, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, says animals who are in the category of ‘generalists’ are more likely to exhibit behaviors considered “curious.” Generalists are animals whose genetic predispositions allow them to adapt well to new or changing environments. For example, rats who might not be considered extremely adaptable have learned to live in new environments over time, such as subways and under the streets of New York. All animals have different genetics which in turn affects their behavior, but animal curiosity continues to be under-researched which makes determining which animals exhibit curiosity traits to be very challenging. Despite this, there are a few traditionally popular animals that have loosely been categorized as “curious.”


Rats are traditionally skittish, shy creatures who prefer the cool night over being awake in the day. They seldom interact with humans, preferring to run and hide when approached. Rats are not the traditional ideal of “curious,” but tend to exhibit it when exposed to a new stimulus such as a new environment, situation, or object. When in a new situation, rats exhibit a cautious curiosity in which they don’t approach new things out of blind excitement, but more as a defense mechanism to determine whether that object is a threat. 


Elephants are considered extremely intelligent and majestic animals, can sense human and animal emotions, and live in herds that are emotionally bonded together. This species is very perceptive to emotions and has a sensual intelligence combined with a very high sense of curiosity in new situations. Elephants exhibit curiosity with one another, particularly through their young. For example, when an orphaned calf — a baby elephant — is introduced to a new herd, the ideal situation would be for a birthing mother to adopt the calf, but if the herd does not accept the calf, the consequences could be catastrophic. When meeting a new animal within their herd for the first time, the elephants use their trunks to smell, judge, and analyze the stranger, therefore, exhibiting strong aspects of curiosity. 

Elephants have very sensitive trunks which are used for many different things, from pulling down trees to accessing food to communicating and vocalizing within the herd. Therefore, they use their trunk as a universal tool, similar to how humans use their hands. For example, when an elephant is brought into a rehabilitation or recovery center, it’s very common for them to get into trouble exploring their new environment with their trunks. Because elephants are very intelligent, they don’t feel safe until they’ve explored every inch of their new terrain. 


Cats are a popular companion species for humans. They are also extremely intelligent animals. Cats exhibit curiosity through many different ways. For example, cats are unusually interested in small spaces, unknown objects, and any type of new situation. This can lead them to be unusually mischievous and get into slightly dangerous predicaments due to their curiosity. They are also overly obsessed with anything that moves. For example, cats love to watch water because it moves. More often than not, they tend to fall in the water. Because they are inherently independent, it’s very easy to spot curiosity in cats; they tend to exhibit it when entertaining themselves or to get their human’s attention. For example, when someone orders a package and leaves the box behind, a cat will automatically investigate it for their own entertainment and may end up getting stuck in the box. This is one of the many ways that cats exhibit curiosity, through their interest in new and foreign objects, as well as entertainment for themselves. 

All animals exhibit some form of curiosity, even though some show more obvious signs of it. Animal curiosity and the study of intelligence are often paired together because both inherently seem to go hand-in-hand. It’s important to understand this idea for educational and scientific purposes; the more information we have about animals, the more knowledge we can share with others. Additionally, if we understand how animals think and process, we can be better equipped to help them in terms of conservation and rehabilitation. 

There is little to no research on animal curiosity alone, but rather there is a large amount of research based around the intelligence of animals. One reason for this may be because it is difficult to separate curiosity from intelligence. One way to improve this lack of research would be by looking at the connection between curiosity and intelligence within a species. The inadequate research in animal curiosity could also be due to the lack of funding. Research requires time, money, and compassion. Unfortunately, the efforts of those who can access funds are not focused on animal research projects, but rather on endeavors that more directly benefit humans. Hopefully in the future more energy and funding will be directed towards this interesting topic. 

Sources: ABC Radio National, California Institute of Technology Division of Biology