- Orangutans and chimps are some of the smartest animals. Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans, and both primates use tools and shelter, with complex ritualistic social structures and some rudimentary language skills.
- Scary smart bottlenose dolphins can switch back and forth between specialized and generalized languages. They’ve also been observed communicating and cooperating with other species.
- African Grey Parrots learn huge vocabularies and understand shapes, colors, spatial reasoning, and relational concepts.
Human beings have the tendency to feel overly secure in their 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.
Survival simply wouldn’t be possible for many species without their specialized intelligence. Remembering routes and landmarks throughout their habitat helps many animals navigate safely and locate food. Some must remember strategies for evading and outwitting predators to avoid becoming a meal themselves. And lots of animals develop an amount of emotional intelligence that may surprise you! Read on as we discuss the 10 smartest animals in the world.
It’s no coincidence that scientists have used rats 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.
Ironically, pigeons rank next on our list and colloquially go by the nickname “flying rats.” The reasons for their inclusion here though are significantly different. Pigeons have proved they can 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 served 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.
Crows are another highly intelligent animal species that have also worked as messengers much like pigeons. 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. Also, crows have even gotten caught memorizing garbage routes and schedules to more effectively steal a quick bite to eat from the trucks!
Crows possess the largest brains 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.
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.
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 octopuses 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! In the wild, they disguise themselves as rocks to sneak around. While mimicking rocks, octopuses inch by very slowly, matching the speed of the water to create the illusion that they’re standing still. This allows them to move around undetected in the presence of predators.
Octopuses can also figure out mazes and problem-solving experiments, making use of both long-term and short-term memory. In their habitat, this helps them find their way back to their dens even after long journeys.
5: African Grey Parrots
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.
Elephants are frequently referenced for their long memory, but they are also one of the smartest animals. These animals have a complicated social structure and have been witnessed participating in funeral rituals for departed members of their families 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.
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: Bottlenose Dolphins
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 the 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 effectively hunt!
Orangutans come in 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 the ‘why,’ or the reasoning behind a certain action. In captivity, an orangutan has learned tool usage and the process of building a simple structure. When researchers released him to the wild, they observed that same orangutan improvising tools from what he could find 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.
Orangutans are considered to be critically endangered. Their population has declined significantly in the last two decades due to poaching, habitat destruction, and illegal pet trade. The loss of their habitat is driven by deforestation for palm oil plantations, timber harvesting, and mining operations. In addition, they face threats from poachers who hunt them for their meat as well as capture young orangutans for sale into the illegal wildlife trade.
Humans can help save orangutans by reducing our consumption of products that contain palm oil and other commodities produced through deforestation, such as paper and wood products. When trees are cut down to produce room for grazing livestock, or to grow soybeans or corn to feed to livestock, orangutans and many other wild animals suffer. Reducing or eliminating meat consumption can go a long way to helping save endangered species from extinction.
2023’s 10 Smartest Animals in the World Summary
Here is a list of the 10 smartest animals on Earth:
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Animals That Are Smart but Just Missed the List
When people think of animals, they often overlook their high intelligence, with the exception of many dog owners, who rightly feel their dogs are the most intelligent. However, there is scientific evidence that proves the intelligence of many animals, which do include dogs, but also adds orcas, also known as killer whales, and the common raccoon to the list. Here is what makes these mammals impressive:
- Dogs – many breeds are so intelligent, like German Shepherds and border collies, that they are able to not only understand numerous commands, but they can detect cancer with incredible accuracy. Because of their intelligence, they are used by the police, search and rescue, and military units. While the average dog is said to learn around 165 words, smarter breeds can learn around 200. Their intelligence an be defined by these areas – adaptive, instinctive, obedience, and working.
- Orcas (Orcinus orca) – the largest member of the dolphin family, and the only extant species in the genus Orcinus, these impressive apex predators are highly intelligent and use complex communication systems. Often referred to as ‘wolves of the sea’, these mammals hunt and live in pods or groups, and work together, similar to a wolf pack. They use their conical teeth for ripping and tearing but not for chewing.
- Raccoons (Procyon lotor)- also known as the common raccoon, these critters are able to use their paws, which appear hand-like, to not only open objects but they have impressive lock-picking skills. Often scoring almost as high as monkeys on intelligence tests, these masked bandits are said to remember things better than dogs, retaining information for over three years. When rescued, they have been known to bond with their humans but are also quick to bite when annoyed.
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