I just wanted to know something relatively simple. What evolutionary factors could lead to an alien prey species to develop human like intelligence, and by prey species I mean a species like bunnies.
A better example might be parrots. I've seen books for pet owners repeatedly point out that parrots are behaviorally different from dogs because they are a prey species rather than a predator species.
Now don't forget that being a predator doesn't mean you're the apex predator. On science shows I've seen it shown that earlier hominids were "still prey" to other wildlife.
It is quite plausible that animals like birds (some birds are definitely predators now: I mean small omnivores and scavengers) will continue to find intelligence to be a competitive advantage for evading predation, finding more food sources, and finding roosting and nesting sites.
That summarizes the evolutionary factors: it confers advantages. There are also disadvantages, including the metabolic expense.
Why did it take off in hominids? Perhaps because the software can change faster than evolving new traits, and this allowed the spread into new niches and ability to cope with rapidly and repeatedly changing niches. E.g. learning to make clothes can happen overnight, while growing a coat takes thousands of years. Look at rapid, repeated changes to the environment or availability of food sources as a factor that encourages intelligence as a solution.
There are several factors that could lead a species to evolve to a human like intelligence:
- complex and big social structures
- prehensile limbs in order to handle tools
- highly nutritive food or efficient digestion for fuelling a bigger brain
- education is required to transmit skills through generations
- widened hips to be able to give birth to babies with larger head
- a safe zone like a burrow, where the animal can shelter to educate the youngest and stop always being in a prey way of thinking, focused on present
None of these factors exclude a prey species.
Predators don't necessarily co-evolve; predators that used to prey on our species are proof. There are no super intelligent lions...if one type of prey becomes difficult, and/or dangerous, to hunt...You just eat something else. The real question is, why would the bunnies keep getting smarter after they were smart enough to evade or kill their predators to the extent that the predators no longer exerted any significant evolutionary pressure. They would probably develop simple tactics to evade 99.9% of predation long before reaching human intelligence. Humans kept getting smarter and smarter long after we became the apex predator for one simple reason: we were competing with each other, so we were the threat to each other that drives continuing evolution. Bunnies would probably have to be a threat to each other, even indirectly, or they may have predators that remain a continuing threat even against human-IQ prey.
The Will To Survive
Humans are hunted by lions and other large predators sometimes. I think it would be feasible to have a prey species become intelligent, even if you disregard that. (Because I don't really know how truthful it is.) If the prey has to continually become smarter to avoid being eaten by the prey species, at some point it might develop human-like intelligence, especially if the stupid ones meet death.
The problem with this situation is that the species co-evolve. Just like @Thucydides said, your human intelligence bunnies will be hunted by probably even more intelligent wolves. This could lead to problems if you intend them to become spacefaring, because you'd have the more peaceful bunnies and the ruthless predator wolves.