We humans don’t always give animals their due. Sure we love our pets and enjoy the random sighting of a wild beast now and again, but most of us consider them "merely" animals and by their very definition they are not as intelligent as human beings.
We might be underestimating some of them.
Animals are far more smart, crafty and innovative than we often give them credit for. They’ve adapted over millions of years into very efficient biological organisms. Sure, we’re not at a “Planet of the Apes” scenario just yet, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be impressed. Here are the ten most intelligent animals on Earth – outside of us humans, of course.
These eight-armed invertebrates are pretty smart. They also have fairly large brains, and like humans, their brains are separated into folded lobes. Octopus’s use a specific part of their brain for visual recognition which is unusual for many animals. These cephalopods enjoy playing and problem solving, they will use tools, and they also try to avoid boredom if possible and exhibit a fairly impressive short term memory. Scientists have seen these creatures solve puzzles and mazes. Most amazingly, we still don’t know that much about them. Scientific research is constantly discovering new things about these amazing sea nerds.
There’s a reason rats are bred for scientific study – and it’s not because most people consider them vermin. Rats are highly intelligent, especially considering the size of their brains. Rats have routinely outfoxed scientists in lab experiments. They’ve often discovered loopholes and solved problems that the experimenters themselves have never noticed. Rats have not only survived in nearly every environment on earth – they’ve thrived because of their cunning and survival instincts. Rats also possess a feature common to humans called metacognition. They can detect dangerous things like bombs, and they express emotions.
Squirrels are pretty damned creative. Don’t believe us? Try putting a bird feeder in your yard and stopping the squirrels from eating out of it. No matter what strategy you might use they will still find a way to raid the birdseed. They will scale a single line of rope down to a hanging feeder and clean it out. But that’s not all. Squirrels store food and remember with accuracy nearly everything they bury and where to find it – even in the middle of winter and trapped under snow. Not clever enough for you? Well, squirrels will also “fake” bury food in order to foil other scavengers that might steal their stuff. And you thought you were the only one who hid your valuables from thieves.
Crows are a lot smarter than you think. If you’ve ever driven over an acorn it could be because a crow purposefully laid it in the street so cars could break them open. That’s just one example of the intelligence level of these animals. Aside from a couple of parrots, crows have the largest brains among birds. They can recognize human faces, are smart enough to hide food and can use tools. In addition to planting nuts in the road for cars to run over, crows will often drop them from great heights in order to break them open. Let’s just hope they never form a collective intelligence and replicate an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Otters are considered one of the smartest, if not the smartest, sea mammals in the world. Everyone has seen them at play and they exhibit creativity in this activity. Otters will dance and slide down embankments while at play. They also use tools like rocks to smash open oysters, crabs and crayfish – plus they use rocks to remove bones and other parts of fish they may not want to eat. It’s believed that sea otters are so smart they can use the vibrations in water to sense when a predator is close.
Pigs have an extremely active social life. Mom pigs have been known to sing to their young to calm them. Pigs eat together, sleep together, and even walk together for no reason other than they like each other’s company. Pigs can communicate with each other via an impressive series of different vocal noises. Pigs are smart enough to defecate away from their homes (assuming they have the space), to steal food from other animals and each other, not get lost – even when far from home, and have even been known to create new places for plants to grow on purpose. Most importantly, pigs have exhibited the ability to learn from past mistakes and not make them again. They can be extremely sneaky when they want. Maybe now you will appreciate all that bacon you’re eating a bit more.
Elephants have the largest brain of any land animal on earth – which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering their physical size. Such large cranial capacity has its benefits though. Like pigs, elephants have an active and rewarding social life. They can perform complex tasks and learn from their surroundings and experiences. Scientists believe they can recognize hundreds of different sounds and even mimic some of them. They have shown the ability to use tools and to display emotion at times of joy or pain – not only for themselves but for other elephants.
The average dog has the intelligence of a two-year-old child. It can track by scent, understand human commands, find hidden objects by smell and be trained in a variety of roles from service animal to guard dog. Dogs are extremely social, can locate their home from great distances, and can possess an extremely high level of understanding. It’s no wonder we like dogs so much! Some scientists believe that dogs can pick up on human emotions and react accordingly. And the most amazing thing about canines? Their sense of smell. A dog’s brain can identify roughly a million different scents.
Dolphins can do some pretty amazing things. They can recognize themselves in a mirror – but they also have exhibited the behavior of checking themselves out for the sake of just enjoying their bodies (sound familiar?) They express emotion, such as laughter. They can comprehend difficult tasks and can learn from their environment. They also have checked the “I don’t know” option on tests when they didn’t know the answer (no word on how the dolphin managed to use the #2 pencil.) Most impressive? When a dolphin sleeps only half its brain sleeps – the other half ensures the dolphin rises for air so it doesn’t drown and keeps aware for potential predators.
Maybe it’s unfair to group apes as one type of animal. The fact is, apes are the closest an animal can get to being human. Chimpanzees have used tools to better their lives. All apes can learn from their surroundings and communicate with one another. Apes construct their own homes. They can learn complex tasks, learn other languages (including human sign language), have used tools as weapons against other animals, and of course; ape DNA is extremely close to human DNA. Like humans, apes have an extremely active social life and display emotion. Our studies of apes have led to numerous insights in both their lives and ours.