8 of the Dumbest Reptiles in the World

Written by Gail Baker Nelson
Updated: September 15, 2022
© Justin Griffiths - Public Domain
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Most of us want to think the best about our animals.

We want to believe that our dog is pretty intelligent and our cats (of course!) are evil geniuses bent on taking over the world. Yet, not every animal is clever, just as we humans have varying levels of intelligence in different areas of our lives.

However, those of us who also keep reptiles know that they are smart enough for what they need to do to survive. Sometimes in ways that surprise us all. However, the elevator doesn’t always reach the top floor, as the saying goes.

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While there are many really clever reptiles, we decided to have a little fun and track down a few of the absolute dumbest.

8 – Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus)

Gharials have legs which are too weak to support them on land.

©Justin Griffiths – Public Domain

The gharial made our list because, even though they are crocodilians, they can’t walk on land. Their legs are short, stubby, and too weak. That’s right, they naturally selected themselves out of walking on land, unlike every other crocodilian. They also have this slightly dumb-looking (and really weird) bulbous growth at the end of their snout. Once widespread across the Indian subcontinent in rivers like the Ganges and Indus, they are critically endangered. On the bright side, thanks to recovery efforts, their population is growing again.

Believe it or not, these weird reptiles get their name from the giant growth on tip of their snout. Here’s how it goes: In India, there’s a pot called a ghara, and its shape is remarkably similar to the shape of that protuberance at the end of a gharial’s nose. Lest we forget to mention, it’s only the male gharials that have huge noses. Apparently, males with the largest growths have better luck with the females.

An interesting thing about these critters is they may not be as dumb as they look. Gharials seem to have a much more complex social structure than some reptiles. The males and females protect the young until the first monsoon after hatching. You’ll see babies hitching rides on males that may or may not be Dad.

Our question is, did the pot get named after the gharial, or did the gharial’s rather impressive nose inspire the pot?

7 – Spiny-tailed Lizards (Uromastyx sp.)

lizards with spikes spinytailed lizard
Spiny- tailed lizards have a habit of wedging themselves into small crevices.

©Luis Montero de Espinosa/Shutterstock.com

When you think about a derpy-looking face, we’re pretty sure that one of the 15 spiny-tailed lizard species in the Uromastyx genus would make your list. These primitive-looking animals are native to various areas of Africa and Asia. They remind us of a miniaturized version of some ancient dinosaur.

Some of them have really great patterns or colors. For example, the Sudan spiny-tailed lizard has a bright yellow body and a black head. Color and pattern variety aside, we haven’t even discussed their tail. It’s awesome. It’s thick and covered in spines that they use to wedge themselves into crevices to avoid being pulled out by predators.

We’re not sure what’s to keep a predator from taking a bite out of their body and leaving nothing behind but their tail, but they are what they are. Nature seems to have a sense of humor, and this is probably one of its jokes!

6 – Black Rat Snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus)

An adult rat black snake peaks over a rock
Black rat snakes often enter homes where they enjoy wandering around the rafters.

©Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com

Number five isn’t restricted to only one species of rat snake. This actually applies to them all, but we’ll go with just this one for the time being.

Rat snakes are truly special. As their name implies, they love to eat rodents. They are one of our favorite snakes to have around the house for that reason. Pantherophis genus rat snakes are native to North America and widespread across it.

The reason they found themselves on this list is that they have no apparent sense of self-preservation. These snakes are routinely found climbing up a brick wall – in the grout lines. You’ll also find them cruising around the rafters and eaves of buildings. We have even seen a few wrapped around the porch-light fixture, smiling at the homeowner as they return home. They are so known for this that there are Facebook groups devoted to posting the awkward predicaments where people find them.

Unfortunately, some rat snakes have the misfortune of being killed by the person they’ve startled. Is this natural selection weeding out the less clever among the rat snake population? Who knows?

5 – Calabar Burrowing Python (Calabaria reinhardtii)

Burrowing python
Calabar burrowing python has a head that looks like its tail.


We’re not even sure if this snake knows which end is which. Originally, Schlegel (1848) assigned the Calabar burrowing python to the boid genus Eryx. However, most herpetologists since then have considered it a python. Yet, until recently, no one was really certain where it belonged. However, modern science has come to the rescue with DNA studies showing it’s part of an ancient boid branch.

Skipping the part where it doesn’t look like any boid, it’s native to Africa. Specifically, underground in Africa. This snake spends almost all its time underground and has tiny eyes, no heat-sensitive pits, and no teeth either. The Calabar burrowing python even has a head that looks like its tail – or maybe that’s the other way around. We’re not sure, hence, its appearance on this list.

What we are sure about is that this snake is weird and makes our top ten list of dumb reptiles for the sheer confusion it has caused herpetologists over the years.

4 – Tricolor Hognose Snake (Lystrophis sp.)

Tricolor hognose snake
Tricolor hognose snakes breed continually when in captivity.

©Petlin Dmitry/Shutterstock.com

Coming in at number four is a colubrid called the tricolor hognose snake. Not to be confused with the North American hognose snakes, which are in the Heterodon genus, these South American natives will literally try to breed themselves to death in captivity.

You read that right. These snakes aren’t the brightest.

Tricolor hognose snakes breed like bunnies. Females can produce two or even three clutches every single year of their adult life. For snakes, producing eggs is resource-intensive and risky, so the idea that a snake would be capable of double or triple-clutching is astounding. In fact, if you keep them in captivity, you have to separate the males and females far enough so that the females can’t smell the males. If you don’t, the females will continue to produce eggs until it kills them.

We’re not sure if it’s a weird survival mechanism or an act of defiance, but killing yourself by breeding gives it a place of dubious honor on our list.

3 – Mata Mata Turtle (Chelus fimbriata)

Ugliest Animal - Matamata Turtle
Mata mata turtles are one the strangest looking animals around with a flattened, pointed head

©volkova natalia/Shutterstock.com

This purely carnivorous turtle from South America was originally described as a “large land turtle with spiky and ridged scales” by Pierre Barrere in 1741. Over the next two centuries, it would be renamed 14 different times, finally arriving at Chelus fimbriata in 1992.

Mata Mata makes our list because, well, look at it. It’s freakish and bizarre, with a dumb face that only a mother could love.

These very sedentary, fully aquatic turtles are native to the Amazon. What they lack in beauty, they make up for in creativity. Their shells grow into something that looks like a chunk of tree bark on the bottom of the muck. Yet, there’s more. Nature decided to flatten its head to the point that it looks like a cartoon character, complete with random dangly “barbels” hanging from its chin and jaw. It also has a horn on its snout.

We’re not even sure that its pieces all fit together correctly.

2 – Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Eastern Hognose Snake with flattened neck on sandy soil with grass. They have rectangular spots down the middle of the back that may resemble eyespots.
Eastern Hognose Snakes play dead when threatened before defecating over themselves


Wow. If you thought it couldn’t get weirder (or dumber) than the mata mata, you were wrong. The eastern hognose is off the charts. It even has the nickname “Drama Noodle.”

Why? We’re so glad you asked. You see, instead of high-tailing it when a predator comes sniffing, the eastern hognose snake has a different plan. First, it spreads a cute little sort of hood in an effort to look bigger. It’s not possible. These little derps are only about 2 feet long. When this unimpressive display fails, it rolls over and plays dead. Repeatedly. If you keep harassing it, the little snake decides it’s time to unload its bowels all over itself and leaves its tongue hanging out during the whole process.

What this ridiculous snake lacks in intelligence, it really makes up for in entertainment value.

1 – Thorny Devils (Moloch horridus)

lizards with spikes thorny devil
Thorny devils are covered with spikes all over their body.


Rounding out our list at number one, the thorny devil has to be the dumbest-looking lizard on the planet. That is, if you don’t mistake it for a cactus first. This lizard is covered in sharp spines that stick out in all directions and even has a fake head behind its real one!

While this lizard may resemble the horned lizards of the North American genus Phrynosoma, they are only very distantly related. Thorny devils are, in fact, native to Australia, even though they’d fit right in with a barrel cactus in Arizona. Scientists believe their similarity to horned lizards is yet another instance of convergent evolution. It’s an idea that says two similar species can evolve in completely different parts of the world because of similar ecological pressures.

The thorny devil’s spines are believed to protect them from predators by making them hard to swallow. When threatened, it puts its real head between its front legs and presents the fake head to the predator.

So, maybe it’s not quite as dumb as it looks? Perhaps it’s truer to say that it’s crazy like a fox.

Are These Reptiles Really Dumb?

We’re not really sure, but actually, some researchers are discovering that reptiles aren’t always as dumb as they look. They’re as smart as they need to be in order to survive, and sometimes how smart is really surprising.

According to a study published in 2013, mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) and American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) use sticks and twigs as bird lures during the birds’ nesting season. So now who’s the bird brain?

As we learn more, we find that animals are much smarter than we give them credit for being. In some cases, we were giving the wrong tests to the wrong animals. Yet, no matter how smart some animals may be, others are just plain dumb.

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© Justin Griffiths - Public Domain

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About the Author

Gail’s love for a very misunderstood group of animals, reptiles, led her to write about and draw them. She loves the natural world and it’s endless inspiration for her work. She is a freelance writer and illustrator, and her latest book, “Pebble Skins and Fast Walkers: What’s In a Name?” Is due out in early 2023.

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