“Intelligent” is not a word that you would use to describe the majority of animals, but humans are not the only species that have smarts. Whilst none are able to match the intelligence of humans, there are many different species, both big and small, that are very impressive when studied closely. They have adapted over millions of years to become intelligent, resourceful, and even crafty so that they are capable of surviving on their own. Several of the animals on this list might be predictable, but there are also a few surprise inclusions which should change your entire perception of the species.
Pigs are often an animal that get a bad name for being smelly and stupid, but this is absolutely not the case. Studies actually show them to be very smart creatures, and about as trainable as dogs. They are excellent scavengers and therefore able to adapt to their surroundings, and often “deceive” each other so that they can get more food. Their communication and social nature is remarkable, and they are always seen together as they seek out the company of one another and attempt to maintain physical contact. The mother pigs are even known to sing to their offspring to calm them. All of this means that their behavior is not like cattle, sheep and other farmyard animals, but instead much more like dogs and even humans. Their social nature and trainability (plus cuteness) sees them sometimes kept as pets.
Otters are known for their very playful nature, and this is a direct sign of their intelligence as they seek enjoyment (often through sliding down embankments and frolicking in the water). They are not just intelligent jokers, however, as they are also a species that use tools to their advantage. They are known to use stones to break open shellfish on their stomachs, and this is a skill that is learned when they are young. They are also adept at building dens beside the water, they establish connections and social hierarchy through vocal language, and they have an incredibly keen awareness of their surroundings. Their playful nature makes them incredibly entertaining to watch, but sadly they are also endangered and some of the 13 species are even at risk of extinction. Humans are the number one threat to otters through deforestation, pollution and hunting for their pelts.
It is not just larger animals and mammals that show signs of high intelligence, and bees are a great example of this. They have an astonishing memory where they are able to remember every flower for miles through cognitive “maps,” and research has also shown that they use incredibly abstract concepts to solve problems in their daily lives. They, of course, build elaborate and very complex honeycomb structures also, which are very efficient for honey storage. Their communities are also fascinating with division of labor and communication through their “waggle dance,” where they can communicate the distance and direction of food sources three miles away. It is worth noting that not all bees are social, however, and although not as intelligent as “the hive,” solitary bees are also smarter than most insects. All pretty impressive for such a small animal.
Squirrels are incredibly fast learners and therefore excellent at problem solving, and when this is combined with incredible persistence and good memory, it can be incredibly frustrating for gardeners trying to keep them out of the garden as they are known to eat practically everything in sight. This is particularly true if you have a birdfeeder in your garden, as they will come up with extraordinary methods to raid it and deprive the birds of any food no matter what you do. They also store food for a later date and are able to remember its exact whereabouts months later, even in the middle of winter. In addition to this, they also show their cunning through pretending to hide food to foil any other scavengers. Although they are thieving and an enemy for many gardeners, you have to tip your hat and admire their cunning, intelligence, memory and persistence.
In addition to having eight arms and being incredibly well-suited to its environment, the octopus is also incredibly intelligent. Like us, their brains are separated into folded lobes and they have a memory system where they can store both short- and long-term memory. They also use tools and are able to manipulate objects as well as the human hand. They are known to play and they have a fantastic ability to solve problems and mazes, and are even known to mimic other animals. Their intelligence is also evident in the various strategies they have to defend themselves, which include deimatic displays, using camouflage, jetting through the water and being able to squeeze through tight places, and of course the expulsion of ink. What we know of octopuses is impressive enough, but researchers keep on discovering astonishing behavior which demonstrates their high intelligence.
There is a common saying that “elephants never forget,” and there is good reason for this as they demonstrate an exceptional memory. This is not the only reason that they are intelligent, however, as they are also one of the few species that use tools to their advantage. Brilliantly, this includes using modified branches to use as flyswatters. Another sign of their intelligence is their social nature with one another, as well as their ability to express emotion and empathy towards other elephants and even different species. This is most notable through their behavior with a dying or dead elephant, which elicits attention and even aid from other elephants, and they even appear to mourn their dead. This impressive memory, resourcefulness, social ability and signs of showing emotion makes them one of the smartest animals to walk the planet, as well as one of the biggest.
They may not be as cute as the majority of animals on this list, but you have to admire rats for their intelligence. Often used in research, rats amaze scientists with their problem solving ability which sees them cut corners, find shortcuts and loopholes which no other creature would find (sometimes even outsmarting the test designers). They also demonstrate altruistic behavior to one another, such as releasing each other from cages before going to the food in experiments. They are also a species that has survived in all kinds of conditions and environments on Earth (and every continent bar the Antarctic), and they have managed to do this thanks to their intellect and survival instincts. In Western culture the rat is seen as vermin (partly due to the Black Death), but in Asian cultures they are revered for their intelligence and are the first of 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.
There are several intelligent species of birds (including all parrots, ravens and even pigeons), but it is the crow that is perhaps the smartest. This is possibly a contributing factor to their cultural depictions and frequent appearances in folklore, as this is a species that man clearly has a fascination with. Few species have proved as adept at tool use as the crow, who are also capable of creating their own tools to use to their advantage, and their problem solving skills are next to none. They are also able to hide and store food across seasons, they have fantastic memory and can distinguish humans by recognizing facial features. One famous example of their intelligence is how they are known to put nuts in the road for cars to run over and crack the shells, or alternatively drop them from great heights to break them open.
Famously one of the brightest animals on the planet, dolphins are constantly amazing researchers with their intelligence. This includes their advanced communication skills with one another, immediately recognizing themselves in the mirror (self-awareness is a sign of being highly developed), they can learn from their environment and utilize tools, and they are very easily trained (which is why they are often the star attraction at aquariums and feature in many films). Dolphins are known to be extremely social with each other and with humans, and this is seen when they leap out of the water “laughing.” Dolphins are also known to cooperate with one another, scheme, teach, learn and even grieve. Amazingly, dolphins only sleep with one brain hemisphere at a time, which enables them to maintain enough consciousness to regularly keep their blowhole above water and to watch out for predators and any other threats.
There are many apes that have proven to be extremely bright and could have been included on this list, but it is the chimpanzee which is the most intelligent. Due to certain similarities, they have fascinated humans for centuries and they are our closest living relatives along with bonobos. Close study has revealed that they are able to make their own tools and then use them to acquire food, and they also have sophisticated hunting strategies that use cooperation, rank and influence. Incredibly, they are able to learn to use symbols and understand aspects of our own language. This means that they are able to communicate with human trainers through a limited set of language symbols. They are also capable of advanced problem solving, and a study in 2013 astonishingly discovered that chimpanzees often solve puzzles for their own entertainment.