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Top 12 Smartest Animals In The World That Will Impress You

Humans mostly believe they are the pinnacle of intelligence. We thought many animals weren’t smart, but they are. It is difficult to quantify an animal’s intelligence compared to a human's. However, researchers use the ratio of brain size to body, number of neurons, problem-solving skills, and social structures to determine an animal’s intelligence.  

Research shows that primates and other species can create and use tools like humans. They are also capable of abstract thinking, language comprehension, and numerical calculation.  

This article explores the intelligence levels of 12 animals in the animal kingdom. These animals include bees, octopuses, elephants, whales, and rats. 

12 Smartest Animals in the World 

1. Bee (Anthophila

bee
Photo by leandro fregoni on Unsplash.

Bees are among the smartest animal species. They are popularly known for their efficient structures and work ethic. Recently, scientists at the University of Sheffield discovered3 that their cognitive abilities include fast and accurate decision-making.

Bees make quick and efficient decisions about where to forage for nectar. They decide where to go and which flower to feed from in seconds. Science shows that they make accurate decisions despite their small brain size. The brain of a bee is the size of a sesame seed. 

The study led by Dr HaDi MaBoudi and Andrew Barron trained 20 bees to recognize five colored artificial flowers. The blue flowers contained sugar syrup, the green flowers contained bitter tonic water, and the other colors had glucose. The team later introduced the bees to a garden with flowers filled with distilled water4.

The researchers tracked the bees and timed their decision-making process. The results showed that they made their decisions within 0.6 seconds, ascertaining that they were highly intelligent. They make decisions faster and more efficiently than human beings5.

2. Dolphin (Delphinidae)

dolphin
Photo by Jonas Von Werne on Unsplash.

It is often difficult for scientists and researchers to determine animal intelligence. Also, comparing the intelligence of many animal species in the animal kingdom can be daunting. Unlike bees, dolphins have large and complex brains. Their brains are the second largest after humans1. Bottlenose dolphins' brains weigh a maximum of 1,700 grams.

Years of dolphin research show that these aquatic creatures are one of the most intelligent animals in the world. They have advanced communication systems that humans have yet to understand. They are also fast learners with complex social structures. 

Dolphins have incredible cognitive abilities. Studies conducted at the Dolphin Research Center in 2010 show that dolphins have high problem-solving skills. A bottlenose dolphin named Tanner had incredible imitation abilities.

Tanner wore a blindfold during the experiments and adapted to using his hearing to determine the proximity and position of his trainer and other dolphins. Other experiments also explore how bottlenose dolphins use vocal signals to solve a cooperative task.

Dolphins are one of the few species that passed the mirror test; they recognize themselves in the mirror. They inspect their bodies, make movements, and examine themselves. Dolphins also experience emotional intelligence. These species feel complex emotions like empathy7, attachment, and altruism.

They make plans, hunt, and protect each other as a community. There was a particular dolphin called Kelly. Kelly was a resident of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississipi. When the trainers taught the dolphins to clean litter in the pool by offering them treats, Kelly planned to have more food for herself15.

Kelly would hide pieces of litter under a rock and tear a little piece when the trainer arrived. The little piece of litter earned her the size of fish as any other litter size. She learned to maximize her returns. She would receive large fish and use some as bait to attract seagulls16.

3. Pig (Suidae)

pig
Photo by Phoenix Han on Unsplash.

We, as a society, harbor a misconception about pigs. Most people think pigs are dirty animals with no animal intelligence. However, research shows that pigs are one of the most intelligent animals in the world. Pigs' cognitive ability is similar to dogs'. 

They respond to human cues in similar ways. Humans who keep pigs as pets show some level of human intelligence. A journalist named Barry Estabrook11 investigated pigs' cognitive and problem-solving abilities.

He interviewed a writer, Sy Montogomery, who owned a pet pig. She confirmed that he showed emotional intelligence. He became quiet whenever she was sad. He also had favorite people he greeted excitedly, even though he only saw them in person once or twice a year.

During his investigation, he spoke to a researcher who confirmed that pigs are intelligent creatures through a mirror test. The researcher also confirmed that pigs can predict the actions of other pigs. 

The Humane Society of The United States believes pigs are more intelligent than human children. Pigs do not wallow in mud pools because they are dumb. They bathe in mud pools because they are cooling and prevent sunburn.

4. African Gray Parrot (Psittacus erithacus)

african gray parrot
Photo by Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Next on our list of the smartest animals in the world are parrots. Generally, all parrot species reach a growth spurt during which their genome sequence evolves. This evolution in their brain structure allows them to memorize things, learn languages, and develop spatial awareness.  

A researcher from Brandeis University conducted a study on Alex's intelligence. Alex was a 28-year-old African grey parrot who lived in a Brandeis Lab. During the experiment, they discovered that Alex has problem-solving skills. He understood the numerical concept of zero. He correctly used the label ‘none’ to describe the absence of numerical quantity during a numerical counting session2.

Alex’s numerical skills make a lot more sense when you learn that African grey parrots have a similar brain structure to humans despite having a brain the size of a walnut. Researchers discovered an enlarged nucleus circuit that passes impulses between the cortex and cerebellum6.

An African grey parrot can identify, categorize, and quantify more than 80 objects. The species can also respond to questions regarding colors and shapes. A study proved how they can outperform young children on some tests like volume measurements8.

5. Raven (Corvus)

raven
Photo by James St. John on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Ravens are one of the most intelligent creatures in the world. They have the capacity for abstract concepts, a skill thought only possible in humans and chimpanzees. Ravens are social animals with empathy and think about the perception of other animals. 

A group of ravens can keep track of their social status in their group or a group of unfamiliar ravens. They fit right into the social hierarchy. New ravens often act submissive towards the leader to gain acceptance into the group12.

Scientists noticed ravens become distressed when they hear playbacks that stimulate rank reversal. Lower-ranking birds don’t show off to higher-ranking birds. 

Ravens can also solve puzzles. Several experiments show they have incredible problem-solving skills. A video formerly on PBS shows a raven figuring out how to pull up a fishing line to steal a catch. They are fast learners who take insights from past mistakes.

6. Rat (Rattus)

rat
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash.

It might be a surprise, but rats are one of the smartest animals on earth. Scientists believe we have greatly underestimated their intelligence. They are smart animals despite having less complex and smaller brains. Several experiments show that rats have immense spatial awareness14.

They use landmarks to navigate their environment. Researchers describe rats' use of space in a complex environment with a three-dimensional coordinate system. Your pet rats are highly intelligent animals. On March 18, 1984, a pet rat saved its owner during a fire outbreak. He licked her face until she woke up.

An experiment led by Ben Vermaercke shows that rats integrate information and apply it quickly. They have advanced visual abilities. Rats can differentiate between a movie with a rat and one that doesn't. They can also recognize a 3-D object if it's rotated. Researchers claim rats are a valuable animal model for the study of complex visual processes13.

7. Bonobo (Pan paniscus)  

bonobo
Photo by natataek on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Next on our list of smartest animals on earth is bonobos. They belong to the family of great apes, which are very similar to humans. Great apes can even learn sign language. Humans and great apes are primates in the same subgroup known as the hominids.  

Bonobos exhibit incredible animal intelligence. They can solve problems related to the theory of the mind. Unlike their cousins, chimpanzees, bonobos are great at understanding concepts of social causality. To solve problems, chimpanzees need to create tools. They also understand concepts of causes and effects10.

Bonobos exhibit empathy, as seen in juvenile bonobos at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University. A young bonobo’s intelligence is equivalent to that of a human toddler. They console one another more than their adult counterparts. Their emotional sensitivity doesn’t require advanced thought processes like humans9.

They exhibit strong effects on friendships and kinships. They console each other with hugs, grooming, or sexual intercourse. Young bonobos raised by their mothers are more likely to be empathetic than orphaned bonobos.

8. Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

killer whale
Photo by Holger Wulschlaeger on Pexels.

Like dolphins, whales are one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom. They have larger brains, weighing up to 6.8 kg. It is five times larger than a human brain. The killer whale species have IQ levels equal to 15 to 16-year-old humans.

Orcas have a high sense of self-awareness because they have highly developed insula and cingulate sulcus regions. They have an excellent understanding of social relationships and empathy, which makes them great hunters.

The killer whale species understands the importance of numbers. They form large pods containing 30-80 orcas to hunt enormous prey. For example, a pod of 80 orcas took down a 59-foot blue whale.

They also have a unique language system. Their limited vocabulary contains 40 sounds using various intensities, volumes, and tones. Learning the dolphin language has been difficult for the human species because we are limited by our understanding and experience.

9. Elephant (Elephantidae)  

elephant
Photo by Matthew Spiteri on Unsplash.

Next on our list of smart animals are elephants. Elephants are one of the smartest animals in the animal kingdom. They have a good level of language comprehension. African elephants recognize the differences between age, gender, and ethnicity solely by listening to human speech. 

Researchers proved this using voice recordings from two Kenyan men. One of the men was from the Maasai tribe, known for killing wild elephants, while the other man was from the Kamba tribe. The elephants moved away in fear and huddled together as they heard the voice of the Maasai, while the voice of the man from the Kamba tribe evoked no reaction.

Elephants can also use natural materials as tools when required. African and Asian elephants use branches to swat flies and dead vegetation to bury their dead. In 2010, an elephant called Kandula used a stone as a stepping block to reach a fruit beyond his reach.

Also, elephants have high levels of self-awareness. They are one of the few animals to pass a mirror test. Researchers devised a testing method to determine an elephant's cognitive ability and self-awareness. 

During the test, elephants realized their bodies were getting in the way of achieving success (passing sticks to human trainers). So they moved their body from the way to get it done. They can recognize themselves as separate entities from their surrounding environment.

10. Octopus (Octopoda)

octopus
Photo by Pia B on Pexels.

Octopuses are aquatic creatures with eight arms. They are unique creatures with incredible levels of intelligence. An octopus’s large brain size accommodates all of its cognitive abilities. Octopus has more than one brain. Each octopus arm has its own brain that operates independently. 

Scientists conducted a five-level learning and problem-solving test on seven octopuses. All octopuses passed all the test levels, proving that the octopus species is the most intelligent animal in the aquatic environment. They also exhibited animal behavioral flexibility during the experiment by adapting quickly to change.

An octopus also quickly camouflages and hides from predators. It has three skin cells, chromatophores, iridophores, and leucophores, which they use to change their colors. They also use special skin cells known as papillae to change their skin texture to match the 3-D background of bumpy seaweed or a rocky coral reef.

Octopuses can also disguise themselves as algae, sponge, or poisonous lionfish. Several researchers failed to discover how an octopus sends camouflaging commands to its brain. They are more intelligent than other animal species in the aquatic environment because they can use tools in unique and sophisticated ways.

Veined octopuses carry coconut shell-like mobile homes and protective covering as protection from predators. They also use their suckers to grab objects and use them as armor to protect themselves from sharks. An octopus also exhibits playful animal behavior. Researchers often caught octopuses playing with floating objects between their arms.

11. Squirrel (Sciuridae

squirrel
Photo by Zuzanna J on Unsplash.

Some people believe squirrels are the most intelligent rodents in the world. They're not wrong. Squirrels are more athletic and evasive than other rodents, and tree squirrels have fantastic memories. 

They hide food in multiple places and remember the types of food in various hidden locations. Squirrels store their food by type; they store hazelnuts in a single location and store acorns in another spot. They also rebury their food when they feel like the first location isn't safe enough.

Squirrels also remember humans who feed them regularly. They are used to human behavior, so they're not afraid of humans. Scientists from the University of Exeter tested gray squirrels' skills in solving a tricky problem: finding a tasty hazelnut. Two years later, the squirrels remembered the solution and made it through the maze quickly.

12. Dog (Canis lupus familiaris)

dog
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash.

Dogs are one of the most popular animals in the world. They make better pets than other animals because of their problem-solving abilities and cognitive skills. Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel found that dogs have a more diverse nervous system than cats. They have about 530 million neurons in the cortex, a lot more neurons than in humans.

They can recognize human speech, language, and human gestures. According to NBC, dogs have the IQ of a two-year-old child. Scientists arrived at this conclusion because of a language development test. An average dog can identify 165 words, including human gestures.

Conclusion  

Animals are catching up to humans in terms of intelligence. They are self-aware; they mourn the death of loved ones; they perform tasks to get their desires. However, their growing intelligence can’t save them from extinction. 

Animals like elephants and bonobos are critically endangered because of the constant development of urban environments. Preserving the ecosystem will give us more chances to explore the intelligence of other species. 

1

Ridgway, S. H., Carlin, K. P., Van Alstyne, K. R., Hanson, A. C., & Tarpley, R. J. (2016). Comparison of Dolphins’ Body and Brain Measurements with Four Other Groups of Cetaceans Reveals Great Diversity. Brain, Behavior and Evolution, 88(3–4), 235–257.

2

Pepperberg, I. M. (1988). COMPREHENSION OF “ABSENCE” BY AN AFRICAN GREY PARROT: LEARNING WITH RESPECT TO QUESTIONS OF SAME/DIFFERENT. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 50(3), 553–564.

3

The University of Sheffield. (2023). Honeybees make rapid, accurate decisions and could inspire future of AI, study suggests.

4

The University of Sheffield. (2023). Honeybees make rapid, accurate decisions and could inspire future of AI, study suggests.

5

The University of Sheffield. (2023). Honeybees make rapid, accurate decisions and could inspire future of AI, study suggests.

6

Gutiérrez‐Ibáñez, C., Iwaniuk, A. N., & Wylie, D. R. (2018). Parrots have evolved a primate-like telencephalic-midbrain-cerebellar circuit. Scientific Reports, 8(1).

7

Jaakkola, K. (2024). Minding the Minds: A primer on cognitive challenge for marine mammals in human care. Animals, 14(6), 949.

8

Pepperberg, I. M., Gray, S. L., Mody, S., Cornero, F. M., & Carey, S. (2019). Logical reasoning by a Grey parrot? A case study of the disjunctive syllogism. Behaviour, 156(5–8), 409–445.

9

Norscia, I., & De Waal, F. B. M. (2013). Bonobos Respond to Distress in Others: Consolation across the Age Spectrum. PloS One, 8(1), e55206.

10

Herrmann, E., Hare, B., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2010). Differences in the cognitive skills of bonobos and chimpanzees. PloS One, 5(8), e12438.

11

NPR. (2015). 'Tales' of pig intelligence, factory farming, and Humane Bacon. NPR.

12

Bugnyar, T., Reber, S. A., & Buckner, C. (2016). Ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors. Nature Communications, 7(1).

13

Vinken, K., Vermaercke, B., & De Beeck, H. O. (2014). Visual categorization of natural movies by rats. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(32), 10645–10658.

14

Davis, H. (1996b). Underestimating the rat’s intelligence. Cognitive Brain Research, 3(3–4), 291–298.

15

Varley, L. (2012). Deeper water. Google Books.

16

Varley, L. (2012). Deeper water. Google Books.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.
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