We humans are a pretty unique and amazing bunch. Our ability to co-operate, to use complex language to create masterful works of art and to explore deep, philosophical dilemmas like existence and consciousness really do set up apart from our animal cousins.
It’s very easy to marvel at human achievements, but when you take a pause and dive into the fascinating universe of animals, you don’t have to look too hard to find examples of incredible intelligence. They are all over the place. There are some that create incredible works of art in the sand, those that have learned to use tools, that can learn and use sign language or mimic almost any sound they hear. Can the average human do that?
Let’s take a look at some of the most intelligent animals on Earth, and get an understanding of what we determine as intelligence and how we measure this in the animal kingdom.
13 Of The Most Intelligent Animals in the World
Exploring the intelligence of animals opens up a world where we realize that we are not alone in our cognitive adventures and emotional experiences. That can be quite a comforting thought!
I’m going to start this one off with taking a look at 13 of the most intelligent animals in the world and while these are in no particular order (because different species show intelligence in very different ways), I am starting off with three different primates. These animals are our closest relatives, and the most widely researched.
Chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, are not just adorable but also incredibly intelligent! They share around 98.8% of their DNA with us humans, and have considerable cognitive abilities and emotional depth. They use tools, learn sign language, and even engage in tactical deception.
Chimps have a complex social structure, in which they have to navigate through various social scenarios, understand relationships, and manage interactions. This demands a high level of social intelligence. They have been observed displaying empathy, consolation, and even mourning, indicating emotional intelligence. They can even plan for future events, showcasing a level of foresight that is rare in the animal kingdom.
They are adept learners and have shown a capacity to imitate behaviours, learn sequences, and even understand symbolic language. There have been multiple individuals that have shown their ability to learn and communicate using sign language with their researchers. A shame that such research is not more widespread.
Orangutans, the gentle giants of the Borneo and Sumatran rainforests, are not just skilled tool users but also brilliant problem solvers! They can manipulate their environment creatively to solve problems and have a remarkable memory, remembering the locations of fruit trees and the timing of when they’ll bear fruit. They also have a great capacity to learn through observation and mimicry, both in the wild and in captivity.
Despite being semi-solitary, orangutans form strong mother-offspring bonds and have social interactions that require understanding social cues and emotions. In captivity, orangutans have shown the ability to understand and respond to the emotions and needs of others, indicating emotional intelligence.
In tests and observations they have shown the capacity to plan for the future, hiding tools for later use and to innovate and overcome difficulties with new behaviours – all examples of complex thought and intelligence.
Gorillas are another primate that exhibits profound emotional intelligence. They share many of the same intelligence traits and behaviours as the other primates mentioned above, but add to that with some very profound social and emotional behaviours.
They have been observed ‘teaching’ their young ones, through behaviour modification to encourage imitation or understanding. They provide comfort, assistance and encouragement to others in their group, as well as understanding and responding to the emotional states of others too. This shows a great capacity for empathy and emotional intelligence with these Gorillas. It also reveals displays of altruism which are further identified by their tendency to selflessly share food and help injured members of their group.
Gorillas can also communicate through a variety of vocalizations and gestures, and can learn sign language, expressing emotions and desires, and thoughts.
Dolphins, especially the Bottlenose dolphins, are by all accounts, aquatic geniuses. With a brain four to five times larger than expected for their body size, they exhibit self-awareness, recognize themselves in mirrors, and comprehend complex commands. Dolphins communicate using a sophisticated system of vocalizations and even have unique ‘signature whistles’ similar to how we use human names!
They form close social groups with family and allies, and co-operative behaviours around hunting and defending the group. They are one of the few animals other than primates that have learned to use makeshift tools to perform a specific function. In this case, they use a type of sponge to protect their rostrums when they are foraging for food on the sea floor. This illustrates great problem solving and innovation.
Dolphins can learn through mimicry not just of their own species, but others too, including humans. They show capacity to actively teach their young, to remember events from far in the past, and to plan for the future. That is quite a set of skills!
Elephants, the gentle giants, are not only recognized for their impressive memory but also for their deep emotional and social connections and matriarchal families. They are one of the few species that mourn their dead so deeply. They also display deep family and social connections with great capacity for empathy. It’s not all serious and emotional with Elephants though, they engage in lots of playful activities, both baby elephants and elders alike.
They are another animal that have learned to use tools, in this case they use sticks and branches to scratch aggravating itches, and swing the leaves of these branches to swat unwelcome insects. Elephants have shown the capacity to understand human gestures, and even differentiate between languages and human voices. They are long lived animals and their memory is incredible, able to remember places, people and interactions from many years in their past.
Parrots, particularly the African Grey Parrot, are celebrated for their vocal abilities and cognitive prowess. Their greatest trait, and perhaps the most widely researched, is their incredible ability to mimic sounds. They can do this better, arguably, than any other bird. While there are many others that can mimic through simple repetition, the Parrots mimicry extends beyond this. Not only can they mimic human voices, but they also show the potential to understand and use human language contextually, and that is incredible amongst it’s avian peers.
Parrots also show the ability to solve complex problems. African Grey Parrots for example, can associate words with meanings, understand numerical concepts, and even express emotions through vocalizations! They are one of the few species of bird that have learned to use tools, particularly for the use of getting to hard-to-reach food. These birds show the capacity to understand causality and probability, especially when given the challenge of completing complex puzzles.
Corvids – Ravens & Crows
Crows and ravens, the dark-feathered intellectuals, are similar to parrots in that they exhibit remarkable problem-solving skills and the ability to use tools. They have been observed making hooks out of small pieces of wood or metal, for the purpose of getting to food. They have also been observed placing nuts in the road and waiting for traffic to run over them to crack the shell, then swooping down to get their food. This shows that they understand to some extent, cause and effect.
These birds which are both of the genus ‘Corvus‘ can recognize themselves in mirrors, and even plan for the future – a trait once thought to be uniquely reserved for primates!
Pigs, with their curious snouts and intelligent eyes, are both smart and emotionally rich. Research suggests they have a cognitive ability comparable to primates and the most intelligent dogs. They can manipulate objects to achieve a function or goal, they are one of the few animals that understand mirrors and are one of the few animals that have shown an ability to even play video games!
This might sound like a budget sci-fi film, but it’s true. Researchers from Purdue University in the USA ran experiments where pigs were able to move a cursor on a screen by interacting with a joystick with the aim of achieving a reward.
Pigs also have complex social structures, can learn from observation, and exhibit a range of emotions and preferences. They have shown a capacity for empathy and grief, and have shown behaviours that suggest an awareness of their own body and the impact of their actions.
Octopuses, the eight-armed wonders of the ocean, are masters of problem-solving and camouflage. They might look like little aliens, but they show a remarkable range of intelligent behaviours and emotional capacity. They are very inquisitive, though perhaps shy at first, and in captivity show an uncanny ability to recognize different humans. Some species demonstrate the ability to navigate competently through mazes and believe it or not, even unscrew the lids from jars.
These animals have a decentralized nervous system and can perform different tasks independently with each of their eight arms. This is a unique form of intelligence from any of the other species in this list. Octopus have an incredible ability to mimic the appearance of their surroundings, changing colour and blending into their rocky or coral backgrounds. Some can even mimic the appearance of other marine animals!
Rats, often underappreciated, are both clever and resourceful. They have been researched extensively, and the subject of many intelligence tests and experiments. In studies, they have been shown to be able to find shortcuts and loopholes in experiments, and have a great capacity to learn from their environment. Their spatial memory and cognitive mapping are exceptional.
They live in structured social groups and take part in social activities such as play and mutual grooming. Rats, especially young rats, are even known to play hide and seek – though they probably have a different name for it! In some observations, rats also demonstrate a capacity for metacognition, which is the ability to think about their own thinking. They can make decisions based on the certainty of their knowledge, how incredible is that!
Pigeons are not quite as smart as Parrots or Corvids, but they are up there, and have some pretty unique skills and intelligence traits. First and foremost are their incredible homing and navigation abilities which are believed to come from superior spatial memory and their capacity to remember landmarks in relation to location.
So trusted is a Pigeon’s navigation that they have been used across time by humans to deliver messages over long distances, particularly during times of war. They were even used during the World Wars for this exact purpose. While often persecuted, these birds have been a great aid to humans in our times of need.
In other examples of intelligence, Pigeons have shown a capacity to learn from and adapt to their environment. In studies they show a level of self awareness, able to recognise themselves in video footage. They perform well in reward challenges and can be trained to perform sequences of actions. Other observations reveal their capacity to differentiate between different visual stimuli, and even categorize objects, showcasing a level of abstraction in thinking. Pretty smart for an animal some of us consider to be vermin.
No intelligent animals list would be complete without mentioning mans best friend. While all dogs are smart, some are smarter than others and the Border Collie is one of the smartest around, always scoring high in tests of intelligence.
With their alert eyes and boundless energy, they are not only agile herders but also incredibly smart in many other ways. They can understand numerous words, commands, and gestures, differentiate between objects, and even exhibit problem-solving skills, making them one of the smartest dog breeds. They have great emotional intelligence and have a clear understanding of hierarchies. Their memories are also very deep and rooted into their personalities.
How Do We Research Animal Intelligence?
Exploring the depths of animal intelligence involves a blend of behavioural observations, experimental setups, and sometimes, forming unexpected friendships with our animal subjects. Scientists employ various tests (more on this later), to observe and gain insight from the cognitive world of animals. From navigating through mazes to understanding reflections in mirrors, animals are put through a series of challenges to identify the level of their intellect and emotional capacities.
What Qualifies For Intelligence?
Intelligence in the animal kingdom is identified across a blend of problem-solving, emotional understanding, social interactions, learning abilities, memory, and adaptability. It’s a measure of how animals interact with their environment, their peers, and other species, navigating through the challenges of survival and social living.
Determining How Smart Different Animals Are
Determining the intelligence of different animals is a journey that navigates through various aspects of cognitive and emotional capacities. Scientists and researchers utilize a multifaceted approach that tests subjects in the following ways:
- Problem-Solving Abilities: How well can an animal navigate through challenges and use innovative solutions?
- Learning and Adaptation: How quickly and efficiently can an animal learn new skills and adapt to changes in its environment?
- Memory: How well can an animal recall information and experiences?
- Social Intelligence: How does an animal interact, communicate, and establish relationships within its social structure?
- Emotional Intelligence: Can the animal understand and respond to emotional cues, both of its own species and others?
- Use of Tools: Can the animal figure out how to use tools to complete tasks and navigate through challenges?
- Self-awareness: Can the animal recognize itself and have a sense of its own body?
Through a combination of observational studies, experimental setups, and longitudinal research, scientists explore these facets to gauge the intelligence of various animals.
The Different Intelligence Tests Used To Determine Animal Intelligence
So we now know what it is that scientists are measuring to determine intelligence in animals, but what tests do they use? Here are some examples for the different areas of observation:
- Problem-Solving Tests
Puzzle Boxes: Animals are presented with boxes that contain food but are locked or obstructed in some way. Their ability to unlock or access the food is observed.
- Learning and Memory Tests
Maze Navigation: Animals are placed in mazes and their ability to find their way out, and remember the path in subsequent trials is tested.
Discrimination Tasks: Animals are trained to differentiate between different stimuli and are tested on their recall and application of learned knowledge.
- Social and Emotional Intelligence Tests
Mirror Test: Animals are exposed to mirrors to see if they can recognize themselves, indicating self-awareness.
Empathy Tests: Observing behaviours that indicate understanding and responding to the emotional states of conspecifics.
- Communication and Language Tests
Symbol Recognition: Animals are trained to associate symbols with objects or actions and are tested on their ability to understand and use these symbols.
Vocal Mimicry: For species that are capable, their ability to mimic and understand vocal sounds is explored.
- Tool Use and Manipulation Tests
Tool Utilization: Observing if and how animals use tools to achieve goals, such as obtaining food or providing protection.
Object Manipulation: Testing how animals interact with various objects and if they can use them innovatively to solve problems.
- Creativity and Innovation Tests
Novel Object Interaction: Introducing animals to new objects and observing their interactions and innovative uses.
Creative Problem Solving: Presenting animals with challenges that require creative thinking and observing their approaches.
- Cooperation and Altruism Tests – Observation
Cooperative Tasks: Observing if animals can work together to achieve a common goal that benefits all participants. Those that have complex social structures often do well here.
Altruistic Behaviors: Observing instances where animals help or provide for others without immediate personal gain. Some primates show a great capacity for altruism for example.
Some animals will perform better in one test than they do in the other, depending not only on the species but on the individual too.
5 Fun Intelligent Animals Facts For Kids
- Elephants can paint with their trunks and create beautiful artworks!
- Rats love to play and can learn to play a fun game of hide and seek with humans!
- Octopuses have three hearts, but did you know two of them actually stop beating when they swim?
- Pigs have such a great sense of direction that they can find their way home from huge distances!
- Pigeons were used as mail carriers and could deliver messages across long distances, even during wars!