Stoffel the honey badger earned the moniker 'Houdini' thanks to his inventive escape tactics. Image: Screenshot from BBC clip.

A few weeks back, honey badger fever gripped the internet after a video surfaced of Stoffel the honey badger escaping his enclosure at the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre in South Africa. The clip, which is taken from the BBC documentary Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem, shows Stoffel (and his honey badger girlfriend) unlocking gates and using various objects as ladders to climb over walls. 

While plenty of animals (including the family cat or dog) can use objects to help them climb over obstacles or fences, the way Stoffel manipulates the rakes or logs he uses to escape is … well … different. He handles these objects with dexterous claws, balances them carefully on his back, then props them up against the wall, adjusting them as needed to create the ideal escape route. His movements look like they’re the product of careful calculation, and the video clip of his antics has taken many animal behaviour experts by surprise.

"It is astonishing," says William McGrew, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Primatology at the University of Cambridge, "Either honey badgers have been under-estimated, or this is a one-off genius honey badger, or it is a hoax."

It’s unlikely to be a hoax – the BBC is not so easily fooled. And Brian Jones, the conservationist in charge of Stoffel’s well-being, swears that Stoffel’s behavior is untrained. These escape plans are, he claims, 100% the badger's idea. 

“In fact, almost everything we know about honey badger behaviour is muddied by a total lack of data.”

And therein lies the intrigue. Professor McGrew’s research has focused on how chimpanzees' sophisticated ability to use tools is a sure sign of complex thinking. Stoffel's use of the objects in his enclosure to create ladders is, by any definition, tool use. And a complex form of tool use at that.

"This use of tools to elevate the user is reminiscent of one of the classic studies of Köhler, on box-stacking by chimpanzees," suggests Professor McGrew. He's referring to Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments from the 1920s, which were the first to show that chimpanzees can execute a series of tool-using behaviours to access out-of-reach food – findings that heralded a new age of understanding about primate intelligence. We now know that chimpanzees are capable of solving problems not just by trial and error, but also by running through a number of different solutions in their mind's eye. Could it be that Stoffel – as he diligently piles up rocks to form a makeshift escape platform – is engaging in sophisticated problem solving that would rival chimpanzees, corvids and dolphins?

"Based on what I'm seeing, it seems that someone should do some intelligence testing/problem-solving tasks with captive honey badgers, to see what emerges," suggests Professor McGrew.

Honey Badger Intelligence 08 05 2014
Word in the African bush is that the honey badger is a pretty smart species … but it turns out no scientific studies have been done to back that up.

Indeed they should, because as of right now, nobody has. There are simply no studies of honey badger cognition anywhere in the scientific literature. Examples of tool use in honey badgers appear only in the form of documentaries or campfire stories. Their reputation for being a smart species is based solely on anecdote, not scientific study.

In fact, almost everything we know about honey badger behaviour is muddied by a total lack of data. Their reputation for ripping off the genitals of their enemies – whether it’s lions or humans – has never been confirmed. Their bulletproof hide, resistance to snake venom and habit of feigning death when threatened are all hearsay. Scientists know next to nothing about honey badger intelligence. And that has simply got to change.

What we need are a handful of enterprising researchers ready to put the honey badger through its paces, to design and implement careful experiments to tease out their hidden talents. But with only a small number of honey badgers in captivity at zoos and rehabilitation centres around the world, this might be a challenge. More observations of their natural behaviour in the wild would be wonderful too, but it’s going to be tough. This is a notoriously elusive species that is mostly active at night.

The honey badger has skulked under the radar for far too long. Yes, documentary filmmakers – and YouTube stars – have helped propel it to fame in the eyes of the public, but it’s time now for scientists to get in on the game and to show us what this species can do. Don’t let that emasculation thing scare you off.