10 smartest animals in the world
Despite many conflicting theories about animal intelligence, the prevailing one has long been that animals are essentially pre-programmed entities, typically acting in non-surprising ways almost solely in response to signals originating in the environment. During the past century, this view has been slowly challenged, and more recently, the predominant perspective has shifted to one of animals as active thinkers with levels of intelligence that were previously presumed impossible. The whole concept of animal intelligence is a fascinating one – not least because humans, too, are clearly animals, and we must consider ourselves as part of the spectrum we are analyzing. Whether it’s dogs riding skateboards, the intricate mimicry of bees, or turtles learning with touch screens, the idea of smart animals captivates us as much as it confounds us.
What exactly is intelligence? And can we really expect, with any degree of accuracy, to measure human intelligence against that of other species? Obviously, the same criteria won’t work at all. Ants will never pass a college entrance exam. But by the same token, no human civilization employs traffic control with the same level of efficiency as does an ant colony. African termites use an complex temperature control system within their mounds to safeguard the fungus which they farm to feed the colony. Pigeons tap into Earth’s magnetic field to determine precise locations and directions. But what are the smartest animals of all? Here is a look at the ten that top the list.
The grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus😉 is – unsurprisingly – grey, black-billed, and quick-witted. Their primary claim to fame, the ability to closely mimic human speech, may seem like nothing more than a party trick at first glance. But try telling that to the owner of a grey parrot in Japan, whose pet briefly escaped, only to be returned home when it started saying the owner’s name and address repeatedly. These birds have eager minds that crave stimulation, and are known to develop behavioral problems as pets when not given enough attention.
Other things call attention to their intelligence than just a predisposition to boredom, however. In tests that deal with everything from memory, voice recognition, reasoning, object permanence, and deduction, they have been known to perform as well as four- to six-year old humans. A famous researcher and parrot duo, Dr. Irene Pepperberg and “Alex” the parrot, made many headlines prior to Alex’s premature demise, with the grey parrot demonstrating a vocabulary that consisted of over 100 words, object differentiation, and a limited knowledge of shapes, colors, and more.
A lot of the ways squirrel intelligence has been observed revolves around food. In a study that involved having squirrels choose from one of two containers that may contain food, the squirrels were able to learn from observation, after minimal attempts, which container was more likely to house the snack. In addition to being quick learners, the method by which they accomplished it indicates some capacity for abstract thought, putting them in a realm once thought to only be occupied by primates.
Squirrels, like most other animals, aren’t intelligent by chance; they have to be smart in order to survive. The degree to which this is true becomes evident when watching squirrels go about their food hiding rituals. Not only do squirrels somehow manage to remember the locations of hundreds of nut caches they’ve created (storing and planning – yet another sign of intelligence), but they also seem to have a near perfect memory for good food sources, year in and year out, as well as the fastest route up or down any tree they have previously climbed. Perhaps even more intriguing, at least to some researchers, squirrels have also been observed as actively engaging in trickery: they create fake caches, stealthily hiding the nuts in the meantime, whenever they think another squirrel is watching.
Crows are a member of an avian family referred to as corvidae, or corvids. The corvid family consists of crows, ravens, jays, magpies, nutcrackers, rooks, and over 100 other species, but the crow is generally thought of as the most intelligent of the bunch (it is competitive, though, especially with the ravens). Crows are smart birds, that much is for sure, so smart that it even verges on scary. Maybe that’s why for centuries, people have passed down tales that feature them (and ravens) as symbols of misery, despair, and death.
A university in the northwestern U.S. performed an experiment involving masked researchers that indicated crows have a lasting memory for human faces. That’s not the most interesting part, though – the crows also held what could only be called grudges against the researchers, and communicated their feelings to other crows. That the black birds use some form of linguistic ability to share information with one another is really beyond doubt, as many researchers have acknowledged that there is a clear presence of unique dialects among crows in different regions.
It’s not all gloom and doom with the crows, though. If they don’t like you, it’s true that they’ll hold it against you, but if you treat them with kindness, they’ll remember that as well. In another example of their intellectual capabilities, crows have shown that they can replicate the events of Aesop’s famous fable “The Crow and the Pitcher” in real life, which translates to using water displacement in order to obtain a hard-to-reach bit of food. Indeed, they are particularly smart about their food – they have even been known to follow garbage trucks around a city, memorizing their route in order to be able to pick up the best bits of scraps that fall out along the way.
Meta-cognition – the ability to think about what you do or don’t know; to think about what you think. This is a fundamental aspect of the human experience, but for a long time, scientists believed it was only a human experience. Then, studies gradually made it apparent that other, non-human primates also possessed the capability for meta-cognition – and now, rats! The idea is controversial, to say the least, and yet, the facts are clear. How much or how often do rats put this ability to use? These types of discoveries aren’t made quickly or easily, and we may never know. But just the fact that it exists is pretty wild!
Rats have also been shown to develop the best strategy for reaching a goal, remember it, and stick to it, which is more than can be said for humans in a lot of cases. They can even find and exploit loopholes in test situations, show plenty of compassion, play fetch (and a number of more complex, mentally demanding “games”), and more. It’s sort of ironic, because rats have one of the worst reputations among mammals. Many people perceive rats to be dirty and disease-ridden, even though they spend over an hour a day grooming themselves, and are less likely to carry contagious illnesses than either cats or dogs. Speaking of dogs…
There are so many dog breeds which demonstrate very similar levels of intelligence that seems more appropriate to talk about dogs in general than about one particular type. It is worth mentioning that border collies, poodles, German Shepherds, and retrievers are commonly thought to be among the most intelligent of breeds. Dogs show off their smarts in a whole slew of ways, and even how they learn can say a lot about what’s going on in their brains. They can certainly learn through the classic mode of reinforcement, but also are capable of learning through observing (watching other dogs, humans, and sometimes even other species as well). The list of impressive behaviors dogs are known for is long, but it’s also true that humans have probably spent more time around dogs than any other species; getting to know them, training them, and developing their abilities to make them better pets.
Many dogs can respond appropriately to the body language of humans, which is no easy feat. They also have extensive vocabularies, with some canines capable of learning and remembering the names of hundreds of different items. They can even use their memories to make inferences about the names for items they’ve never seen, a trait which is considered by many experts to be an example of “advanced” memory skills. Dogs also feel emotions on a spectrum not so different than humans, and it’s not difficult to interpret a canine display of jealousy, guilt, confusion, or eager anticipation. Like the squirrels found earlier on this list, dogs also engage in deception, leading some researchers to ponder over whether dogs in fact possess what is called a “theory of mind.”
Almost all primates are thought to be rather intelligent. Most use tools, cooperate to accomplish tasks, and participate knowledgeably in complex social hierarchies. Orangutans are among the most intelligent primates of all, however. Not only do they use tools, but they innovate new ones to accomplish novel tasks, and like to keep a kit that consists of the right tool for every job (there’s the task of extracting insects from hollow trees, the tedious chore of harvesting seeds from within difficult-to-crack fruits, and more). When presented with a task and a selection of tools, captive orangutans consistently chose the right tool the first time.
Another good example of orangutan intelligence can be seen in how they design their nests, which serve as treetop sleeping quarters. Not only do they purposely use different types of branches for particular parts of the nest, they also bend, break, and shape the branches to maximize the nest’s comfort and integrity. For the weight-bearing framework, they choose branches that are thick and rigid, while for the lining of the nest they choose smaller, more flexible ones.
And while orangutans clearly communicate with one another in their own way, they’ve also proven capable of learning human sign language as well. One famous orang, Rinnie, learned roughly 30 signs in a two year period.
Pigs are dirty slobs only good for being made into delicious bacon, right? Not so fast. Recent research has added to a growing respect for pigs – and their intelligence – among the scientific community. As it happens, pigs actually aren’t very dirty at all (something pig lovers have known for a long time) – they are fastidious groomers who refuse, given the choice, to defecate or urinate near their living or eating area. And that’s not the only way in which they are smart – not by a long shot.
For instance, did you know that pigs have great long-term memories? They love horseplay (much like dogs, primates, and humans), they have the capability to master simple symbolic languages, they love mazes (and are incredibly good at them), they can find hidden objects using mirrors, and they can even use a joystick to control a virtual object (also like some primates). Want more? Pigs also prefer to live in a complex social arrangement that involves teaching and learning from one another, and they show empathy toward the emotional plights of fellow pigs.
If there is a single animal whose intelligence arguably renders them deserving of better, more humane treatment in livestock farms and other facilities, it might be the oft-maligned pig, who is not only smart and clever, but also sociable and loving.
When it comes to assigning the top three spots in a list of the planet’s most intelligent animals, there really is a lot of give and take. How do we judge it fairly – and by whose standards? There may be no good answer to those questions, but there is a good case to include elephants at number three. Elephants do some things that might surprise you – they mimic human voices, can differentiate between human languages, mourn their dead, and use a variety of tools (including a paintbrush).
Of course, what elephants are famous for is their memory, no question about it. But where do they get that reputation? Maybe some examples are in order. Elephants can remember what they look like – and if you change something about their appearance (splash some paint on them, for example) they’re quick to notice when they look in a mirror. They also remember exactly how to navigate between water holes – this is crucial to surviving in hot, dry climates, especially when you’re not a fast mover. “Never forgetting” also applies to friends, as elephants have been known to recognize past compatriots even after decades of being apart. Elephants are incredibly social creatures, too, and another impressive trait of theirs is the ability to keep track of many different family members (who may be miles away) just by using their sense of smell.
We’ve established that primates are pretty smart. They have high cognitive capabilities, sophisticated food gathering techniques, an ability to be manipulative, and an awareness of social status, among many other remarkable traits. Chimpanzees, however, are widely respected as the most intelligent primates of all. Frans de Waal, an animal researcher who studies solely primates, claims that chimpanzees are capable of a vast number of tasks that were, at one time or another, considered to be only human territory. Of course, that really shouldn’t be so surprising, consider that humans and chimps share approximately 99% of the same DNA.
Perhaps the most intriguing and impressive display of chimpanzee intelligence is their use of tools. Not that long ago, scientists more or less accepted the idea that humans were the only species capable of developing and using complex tools, but the work of famous researcher Jane Goodall in the 1960s laid the groundwork for changing that assumption. Since then, chimps have been sighted hunting for honey on numerous occasions, using a tool kit that consisted of no less than five individual tools – one to break the hive, one to get to where the honey is stored, another for widening the open to get the honey out, still another for dipping the honey out, and finally, one for scooping it up. This constitutes a level of premeditation and planning that is strikingly similar to behavior in humans.
De Waal estimates that most chimpanzee communities use somewhere between 15 and 25 unique tools, and that the techniques for making and using them are passed down from one generation to the next. All of this together constitutes a level of premeditation, planning, and awareness that is strikingly similar to what we’re used to seeing from our fellow humans.
Really? Dolphins? Yeah – dolphins, and especially those of the bottleneck persuasion. Along the coast in the southeastern U.S., bottlenose dolphins can be seen cooperating for food. Dolphins in groups of two to six can often be seen cooperating to create a wave that forces fish out of the water, beaching them on sand-covered banks, where the dolphin indulge before wriggling back into the water. They don’t only cooperate with other dolphins, either, but also with fishing humans. Bottlenose dolphins have made an art of herding schools of fish toward the humans’ fishing nets, and in the ensuing chaos of nets being cast and fish being caught, the dolphins make a feast worth working for.
There’s little doubt that dolphin intelligence differs from what we are used to seeing in humans and primates, but there is equally little doubt that it is a very advanced intelligence of its own. Dolphins are capable of comprehending some types of language (and of speaking their own to one another), monitoring their self-behavior (more meta-cognition), understanding and responding to human body language, mimicking human speech and behavior, understanding numerical values, and much more.
The language is perhaps most impressive. Captive dolphins have exhibited an amazing ability to master a vocabulary that includes hand signals used to give intricate commands. For example, hand signals indicating “left, ball, right, hoop, in” might be used to ask a dolphin to take a ball from the left and put in the hoop on the right. Incredibly, dolphins respond accurately to such instructions up to 60% of the time, which statistically rules out chance or accident by a long shot.
We tend to assume that other species are less intelligent than humans, and that may be a fact, but it also remains true that intelligence is a tricky concept. Humans may be particularly capable when it comes to creative problem solving or thinking abstractly, but other species are clearly superior in other ways, such as with smell, vision, and other senses, or the ability to climb trees or function in diverse environments.
Essentially, the intelligence of all animal species evolves to solve a given set of problems, and those become the problems that they are good at solving. However, those may or may not be the same problems that we choose to consider when we try and gauge how intelligent a given animal is. In other words, the science of animal (and human) intelligence is highly complex, and subject to a number of biases that just aren’t easy to avoid. The point is that, despite how intelligent the animals on this list are, there could be species out there who, judged by the right criteria, turn out to be far smarter. Some scientists wonder if the intelligence of mammals, for example, has to do with the number of neurons in the brain’s cortex. If that were true, then the long-finned pilot whale could actually by the planet’s most intelligent animal, as it has a higher number of neocortical neurons than any other.
Hopefully, we continue to learn more and more about animal intelligence. In addition to being a source of great entertainment and wonder, knowledge garnered from the field can also tell us a lot about our own intelligence – and that’s something we could afford to understand a lot better.