Photo: Arno Meintjes Wildlife
They’re small, stubborn, and vicious, especially when cornered. In fact, despite the fact that they barely top 20 pounds, they have few if any predators in the wild; they’re just too big a hassle for too small a mouthful (in 2002, the Guinness Book of World Records went so far as to name the honey badger the “most fearless animal on Earth!”).
But one thing honey badgers—or ratels—are less well known for is their intelligence.
Maybe everyone was too busy trying to get out of their way to look for it.
Extremely dexterous with their long claws, ratels have been observed using the claws as built-in mountaineering tools when climbing slippery surfaces, to pry open manmade beehives (built with materials like woods and plastics), to dig complex burrows in a matter of minutes, and even to unlock bolted gates!
They’re also one of just a handful of animals that have been observed using tools in the wild. They’ve been filmed rolling nearby logs up to trees or fences, then positioning them to create rudimentary “bridges,” allowing the ratels to climb over an obstacle or reach a previously inaccessible food source.
Though it’s by no means a direct correlation to intelligence, the honey badger has a large brain, especially compared to its small body mass.
But the most well-known “proof” of the honey badger’s intelligence is actually a red herring (or maybe we should say a yellow bird…).
Since the 18th century, it’s been accepted wisdom that the honey badger would follow the sound of the honeyguide bird’s cry in order to find beehives. While ratels are certainly more than capable of following a bird cry to food (in an early filmed instance of honey badger tool use, an animal hears the sounds of an out-of-reach kingfisher chick, and rolls a log over in order to be able to reach the bird…which IS the food), there’s no evidence of the oft-proclaimed symbiotic relationship between the badger and the bird.
But managing to maintain that kind of positive PR for over two centuries? That’s a feat of intelligence if we’ve ever seen one!