Animals are some of the most diverse and fascinating creatures on Earth. With so many different species of animals, all with many different and incredible traits, it can be difficult to value one animal’s intelligence in relation to another. After all, animals predominantly act on instinct, living to eat and survive, so whatever one particular animal does is, if not unique to it, at least necessary for its survival. It is also most likely based on a genetic trait that has been developed and adapted over time, depending on the animal’s circumstances. That is why measuring the intelligence of an animal can be a daunting, if not vain, task; as humans we tend to anthropomorphize animals and look for signs of intelligence in animals that we would see in ourselves, basing an animal’s intelligence on its similarity to human intelligence. While there is validity in this to some degree, it is also true many animals are intelligent in ways that humans wish they were. With all that said, here are 12 of the smartest animals on the planet, based not only on the value humans place on them, but also on their natural, evolutionary abilities.
Rats are universally seen as disgusting, disease infested gutter dwellers, roaming through the sewers living in garbage, only leaving their subterranean lairs to search for food. Really, that wouldn’t be an entirely false depiction; rats did cause the plague after all. Along with their less than reputable reputation, rats are also rather intelligent, particularly when it comes to their adaptability. Rats can, and will, live anywhere and make it work. Furthermore, rats also possess extremely strong long term memories, making their ability to find and store food repeatedly, exceptional.
While squirrels may not be the brightest animals on the planet in many ways, when it comes to all that encompasses gathering and storing food, their intelligence is second to none. A squirrel is so adept at the acquisition of food that they have an elaborate method of deception they display when attempting to deter thieves from trying to steal their food, a technique that was actually heightened considerably in lab studies when scientists stole food from the squirrel. Research suggests that squirrels can also interpret the intentions of other animals, hence their response to potential theft. Furthermore, a squirrel’s memory is impeccable; the rodent actually creates maps in order to recall where all of their loot is stored.
Crows are among the smartest birds in the world. With an extremely high capacity for adaptability and complex problem solving skills, crows learn these traits from older crows. Crows are also expert toolmakers, believe it or not, giving them the ability to use foliage in nature to create devices in order to reach or hide food in areas otherwise unavailable to them. The raven, a larger type of crow, has been shown to possess the ability to actually manipulate social situations in order to secure more food, or to protect themselves.
Seen as pests more than anything, when you’re picking up the garbage strewn all across your lawn early in the morning following a raccoon attack late at night, the idea that the masked bandit is nothing more than a pest in understandable. While raccoons may be an annoying part of urban living, they are very intelligent animals that have the ability to solve complex problems, even using tools to aid in their goals. After all, how else would a raccoon open a closed garbage can if not for their intelligence? Raccoons also have a relatively complex form of communication that helps maintain their social relationships, so the whole brood can be made aware of whether your garbage can is the one to hit at 4am for a meal.
Everyone’s favorite domestic pet (well, mine at least) cats are renowned for their cunning and intelligence. Though cats can be trained much in the same way as dogs to follow commands, albeit to a far lesser degree, cats are much more adaptable than their canine counterparts. If there is food to be hunted or found, shelter to appropriate or a section of the bed that used to be your favorite spot, a cat will find it and use it to its benefit. A cat’s solitary nature, coupled with its extremely strong survival instincts, have seen felines adapt continuously through almost every single domestic and wild scenario for over 10,000 years.
With their inherent self-awareness, elephants are in select company in the animal kingdom. Elephants have been shown to exhibit empathy towards not only other elephants but also other species of animals, and are able to communicate with one another through vibrations felt inside their feet. The most amazing aspect of an elephant’s intelligence, however, is its ability to recognize itself in the mirror, proving to researchers that the great, lumbering giant is indeed self aware and conscious of itself in the world.
One of the smartest dwellers of the sea, the octopus is a remarkable hunter that has developed complex strategies in order to make the hunt more efficient. The octopus has also shown signs of self-awareness, an ability to use tools to its advantage and the ability to process visual information. Ever curious and continually seeking to avoid boredom, the octopus’s brain even shares certain features with the human brain. While the overall intelligence of the octopus is still being studied, there is no doubt that they are one of the sea’s smartest creatures, along with being the smartest invertebrate on earth.
Dogs are interesting because their intelligence level can vary wildly depending on the breed. While the smartest breeds of dogs are also most often associated with higher intellect, all dogs are very trainable and obedient. Beyond a dog’s ability to respond to and perform basic commands, researchers suggest that dogs possess a higher emotional intelligence than other animals, making it easier for a dog to actually ‘empathize’ with its owner. Furthermore, during studies some dogs were able to distinguish photographs of other dogs in relation to photos of other objects, suggesting that the dog may actually be able to consciously recognize itself.
4. Bottlenose Dolphins
Bottlenose dolphins have one of the largest brains in the animal world. With such a brain, the dolphin is able to engage in extremely complex forms of communication with their counterparts through a language that some scientists say includes individual names for each dolphin. Dolphins also pass on tool making abilities to their young and in studies were able to recognize which of their behaviors was rewarded positively; dolphins are also smart enough to realize that in order to continue said rewards, these behaviors should continue. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of a dolphin’s intelligence, and one that puts them in select company, is their ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, proving a sense of self-awareness.
Studies suggest that a middle-aged pig may be at the same intellectual level of a three-year-old human being. Ironically enough, they are also meticulously clean, even more so than the majority, if not all, of our favorite house pets. During studies conducted in the 1990s to gauge a pig’s intelligence and ability to form complex memories, the animal was tasked with viewing a screen with two different sets of scribbling on it and asked to move the computer cursor, with its snout, to the scribbling it recognized as opposed to the one it was seeing for the first time. This same study was applied to Chimpanzees previously; pigs learned the task successfully in roughly the same amount of time.
With a genome that is 98% identical to humans, it is more than fair to suggest that chimpanzees are extremely intelligent animals. Considered the smartest animal in the natural world, chimpanzees are expert toolmakers that can manipulate the environment in which they inhabit in order to achieve their desired outcome. When studied in both lab and field tests, chimpanzees were also shown to express self-awareness, empathy and even charity towards others. The most exemplary example of a chimpanzee’s intelligence however; during memory tests done in labs, they scored higher than most humans.
Well, we are all animals after all, aren’t we? When including humans on this list, it is clear, and sometimes maybe even unfortunate, that we are the most intelligent animals on the planet. Just look around you and it’s clear that humans have an extremely powerful brain, with extremely complex methods of communication. Humans are extremely self aware, probably too much, and use verbal and intellectual language to express this daily. Our emotional intelligence is also at the top of the food chain, as we form incredibly intimate relationships with many people in our lives, expressing love, empathy, sympathy and even anger, remorse and more. The emotional spectrum of a human can seem limitless. Humankind’s ability to adapt, create, destroy, and shape the world is a testament to the intelligence, creativity and aspirations of man, but also an example of man’s tenuous relationship with the other animal species on this list, as well as the natural world we all inhabit. Still, by far and away, humans are the most intelligent animals on the planet, and most often, that is a good thing.