The 10 Smartest Animals in the World

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: February 22, 2021

Watch more on a-z-animals YouTube Channel.

Human beings have the tendency to feel overly secure in our position at the top of the food chain. We take for granted the fact that we are the most intelligent animals on the planet without ever actually considering what it is that sets us apart. Is it object permanence, the ability to plan, tool usage, or the fact that we build complex social relationships? Other animal species possess some of those traits, and some exhibit them all. Read on as we discuss the 10 smartest animals in the world.

#10 Smartest Animals – Rats

Smartest Animals – Rats
Rats are very smart animals. They are natural students and are very good at learning and understanding concepts.

It’s no coincidence that rats have been used for years as laboratory research animals. Despite having small and comparatively undeveloped brains, their minds function in an extremely similar way to humans, and the brain structure is comparable as well. They have the ability to figure out mazes, memorize routes, and perform complex multiple-step tasks.

Rats are also social animals. When left alone, they begin to exhibit signs of depression and loneliness. These psychological and social differences are why rats are one of the most intelligent animals.

#9 Smartest Animals – Pigeons

Smartest Animals – Pigeons
Pigeons, one of the smartest animals, can recognize all 26 letters of the English language!

Ironically, pigeons are ranked next on our list and are colloquially known as “flying rats.” The reasons for their inclusion here though are significantly different. Pigeons have been proven to recognize their own reflection which shows a complex sense of self-awareness. They have the ability to recognize specific people and places over months and even years of time. That memory is precisely why pigeons were used for centuries to carry messages over great distances. Pigeons can identify all of the letters of the English alphabet, and they can even recognize the difference between two people in pictures.

#8 Smartest Animals – Crows

Smartest Animals – Crows
The Crow, a very smart animal, are one of the few non-primates that make tools.

Crows are another highly intelligent animal species that were also used as messengers much like the pigeon. They are able to use complicated group tactics when in combat with other animals like flanking maneuvers. Crows can also learn speech, and they have an impressive memory. Researchers have recorded instances of crows altering migration patterns to avoid dangerous areas, and crows have even been caught memorizing garbage routes and schedules to more effectively stealing a quick bite to eat from the trucks!

Crows possess the largest brain of all avian species, and they have shown the ability to recognize human faces. They also are able to use tools despite their obvious lack of hands and arms; in fact, the New Caledonian crow makes a knife to more easily separate leaves and grass. This same species also uses a hook and line to get at hard-to-reach food sources. Some more interesting crow facts are located here.

#7 Smartest Animals – Pigs

Smartest Animals – Pigs
Pigs are considered by animal experts to be more trainable than dogs or cats and are very smart animals.

Pigs just barely edged out dogs for our list of the 10 smartest animals. While dogs have intelligence comparable to a toddler, pigs operate at a much higher IQ level. They are able to understand the concept of reflection at only six weeks old; that is something that takes human children several months to comprehend.

Pigs also have approximately 20 different sounds that they use to communicate, and mother pigs sing to their children while they are feeding. Pigs respond to emotion and even show empathy when appropriate which is an extremely rare trait in the animal kingdom. Other pig facts can be found on this page.

#6 Smartest Animals – Octopi

Smartest Animals – Octopi
The very smart octopus can navigate their way through mazes and solve problems quickly.

The octopus is the only invertebrate animal to make our list of the world’s most intelligent animals. As the only member of its class listed here, you may be asking just how smart is an octopus? Captive octopi have been observed using high-order planning with several steps to escape from captivity, and others are able to damage objects even outside of their tank by intentionally splashing water onto them repeatedly. They even throw rocks at glass and have been able to open jars with screw-on lids. These cephalopods are deceptively clever!

#5 Smartest Animals – African Grey Parrots

Smartest Animals – African Grey Parrot
African grey parrots are not only really smart animals, but they are also helpful!

The African grey parrot takes the highest avian spot on this list of most intelligent animals. Estimated to be as smart as a five-year-old human, these parrots not only learn human speech, but they can master an impressively large vocabulary (up to hundreds of words). In addition, African greys understand spatial reasoning, recognize and identify shapes and colors, and can even be taught the relationships between bigger and smaller, different and alike, and over and under.

A popular pet, the African grey parrot is found in a domesticated state throughout the world, but they are native to the rainforests of central Africa. You can find interesting facts about all sorts of parrot species here.

#4 Smartest Animals – Elephants

Smartest Animals – Elephants
The very smart elephant can imitate the sounds of other elephants and even some human words.

Elephants are frequently referenced for their long memory, but they are also one of the smartest animals. Elephants have a complicated social structure and have been witnessed participating in funeral rituals for departed members of their family as well as mourning their loss. Elephants also use tools and medicate themselves; they will eat the leaves of certain plants to cure illness and even induce labor!

They are also one of the very few animals that perform altruistic acts. Most animals lack the capacity to process the abstract thinking required of such actions. Elephants will sacrifice themselves if they believe that it will allow the rest of the herd or their children to escape to safety. Read more interesting elephant facts here.

#3 Smartest Animals – Chimpanzees

Smartest Animals – Chimpanzees
Chimpanzees are very smart animals and are able to solve many different problems posed to them by human trainers and experimenters.

Our closest genetic relative comes in third place on this list of the most intelligent animals. Chimpanzees share 98 percent of their DNA with humans, and they are native to sub-Saharan Africa. They are expert tool users, and chimps have been seen improvising tools from available items in order to make what they need. These great apes also use psychological techniques; within their own families, they will manipulate others to accomplish certain tasks.

One unique fact about chimpanzees is that scientists discovered adult members of a family unit teaching their young sign language. The most interesting part of that discovery is that there was no human interaction or prompting whatsoever; the chimps took it upon themselves to teach the children sign language, and they were using it to communicate amongst the group. Read more chimpanzees facts here!

#2 Smartest Animals – Bottlenose Dolphins

Smartest Animals – Bottlenose Dolphins
Researchers think that the very smart bottlenose dolphins are self-aware, which would indicate highly-developed, abstract thinking.

Many people believe that the bottlenose dolphin is the smartest animal, but it’s ranked number two on this list. How smart is a dolphin? Honestly, it depends; there are over eight species of dolphin, but only the bottlenose dolphin made the cut here. They have the largest brain size among all their relatives, and they are the only dolphin without fused cervical vertebrae which allows them to make those human-like nodding motions with their heads.

Aside from being easily trainable, dolphins are able to recognize themselves in mirrors, notice unfamiliar marks on their body in a reflection, recognize images on television, and have an impressive memory. Dolphins have remembered calls from a mate after a separation of over 20 years. The two most impressive reasons for the bottlenose dolphin’s high place on this list are truly mind-blowing. They have a language specific to their species that they switch to a “common language” to communicate when encountering other species of dolphin, and they have even been witnessed cooperating with other species such as humans and false killer whales to more effectively hunt!

#1 Smartest Animals – Orangutans

Smartest Animals – Orangutans
The very smart Orangutans will take their time to figure out a problem!

Orangutans come in the first place here for a very interesting reason. Much like chimpanzees, the orangutan is able to use tools, learn sign language, and have complex social structures that involve rituals. What really sets them apart is the cognitive ability to understand why a certain action is performed. In captivity, an orangutan was taught tool usage and the process of building a simple structure; when he was released to the wild, researchers observed that same orangutan improvising tools from what could be found and then constructing a similar structure to obtain shelter from the rain.

It’s no surprise that the orangutan is so smart considering that it shares over 97 percent of its DNA with humans. Their tool use is of the highest order when compared to other animal species. They can be trained to use a hammer and nails, and orangutans even learned to use a hose to siphon liquids. Native to Indonesia, they are sadly critically endangered due to habitat loss.

Smartest Animals List

And that’s our list of the smartest animals on Earth. Next up: The World’s Top 10 Animals That Mate for Life