The World’s Most Intelligent Animals

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Gorgo/Wikimedia Commons

It's often said that an elephant never forgets, but then you have to wonder exactly how much there is to remember roaming the African savannah. Where do you think they stack up on the list of smartest animals on Earth? From chimpanzees to whales, ants and even sheep, there's a lot more to the animal kingdom than meets the eye.

As it turns out, a lot of animals are a lot smarter than most humans think. If we had a clear way to communicate with them, it would probably be astonishing to find out what’s going on in their cute little minds. Let’s find out which ones could be smart enough to take over the world.

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Chimpanzees

Chimpanzees have the closest genetic code to humans. We share 98.6% of our DNA with them, and it shows, not only in our physical appearance but also in our brain power. Chimps are so smart, they can figure out how to use tools to accomplish specific goals.

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Photo Courtesy: Marwi11/Pixabay

They are also widely recognized for using language with each other that includes at least 58 unique gestures for communication. Researchers have watched them throw stones at trees and leave the rocks behind, presumably for no reason at all, which seems to indicate they also have rituals.

Elephants

The saying about elephants never forgetting is rooted in truth — they genuinely have excellent memories. They can remember complex things like routes to the nearest water supply, even if the route is really far away or years have passed since they last traveled that way.

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Photo Courtesy: Benh LIEU SONG/Flickr

Elephants also remember friends (and likely foes too). In one instance in 1999, an elephant named Shirley arrived at an elephant sanctuary, and upon meeting another resident elephant, Jenny, the elephants obviously recognized each other and started to play. It turned out they knew each other from 22 years before when they performed together in a circus.

Bottlenose Dolphins

The bottlenose dolphin's brain-to-body-mass ratio makes it easy to believe dolphins are as smart as humans. In fact, besides humans, they have the biggest brains for their body size in the entire animal kingdom. Even better, they don't let those giant brains go to waste the way humans do.

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Photo Courtesy: Aude Steiner/Wikimedia Commons

Bottlenose dolphins — as well as most kinds of dolphins — have advanced communication skills that seem to be a complex language of their own. They are highly creative and can even recognize themselves in a mirror. Aside from their ability to communicate with one another, they can also talk intelligently with humans.

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Whales

Whales have advanced abilities when it comes to recalling, reasoning, recognizing, perceiving, communicating, problem-solving, understanding and adapting to change. Perhaps that’s why they thrive in nature — without man’s interference. For instance, the blue whale, the largest known living creature, has one natural predator: the killer whale, who is a fraction of its size.

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Photo Courtesy: US Fish & Wildlife Service/Public Domain Files

Whale song — the loud melodic tones that certain whale species create — often has the complexity of human music. Whales "sing" these songs together in perfect harmony, even when they are miles apart. Sometimes whales use their tones to communicate something important; at other times, they're just socializing.

Pigs

Pigs are some of the smartest animals in the world. In fact, some scientists think they are smarter than chimps. The reason is simple: They have seen pigs play video games more successfully than chimps. It’s hard to argue with that logic, right?

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Photo Courtesy: K-State Research and Extension/Flickr

Their object-location memory is phenomenal. Once they find food in a location, they will go back to the same area the next time, expecting food to be there. Perhaps even more impressive is that pigs can find their way home, even from a very long distance away.

Dogs

We love dogs because they are loyal and adorable, but many breeds are also quite intelligent. They can learn new skills rapidly and easily with the proper training, and certain breeds — like Labradors and Poodles — notice even the smallest changes in their environment.

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Scientists have discovered that dogs have the capacity to understand around 250 human words and gestures and can count as high as five. This is all on top of their acute social awareness and intelligence. Combined with overwhelming cuteness, it’s no wonder dogs earned a spot as man’s best friend.

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Parrots

Parrots are famous for mimicking human speech, but their intelligence goes a lot further than that. Part of the reason they can imitate human speech so well is because of their amazing memory capacity. Studies have shown that the grey parrot can associate words with meanings and make simple sentences on their own.

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Furthermore, grey parrots can communicate their desires to humans, count, add, subtract and have been witnessed understanding zero as a concept. Their extreme intelligence comes from a neural circuit in their brains that is very similar to the structure in humans and primates.

Octopuses

Octopuses are quite clever sea creatures. It has been well-documented that they have an outstanding ability to escape captivity, even when the circumstances are dire, and it seems impossible. That kind of cleverness proves they make good use of their brain's 200 million neurons.

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Photo Courtesy: Karen/Wikimedia Commons

Another indication of their great intellectual prowess is the fact that they hate being bored and have learned how to use tools. While they are not capable of conscious thought, it’s actually kind of scary to think about what octopuses would be capable of if they did.

Cats

A cat's excellent hunting ability certainly doesn’t come from luck. It comes from their supreme sensory abilities and intelligence. Although it’s true that cats aren’t as trainable as dogs, that’s not an indicator they aren’t as smart. Think of it more as built-in resistance to domination than lack of intelligence.

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In fact, cats have 300 million neurons in their brains, while dogs only have 160 million. This extensive brain power leads to rational thought and the ability to solve problems and make smart decisions. Plus, behaviorists have found that cats can recognize object impermanence, which means out of sight does not necessarily mean out of mind.

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Crows

A crow's facial recognition is borderline scary. They can recognize people, even if they're not in or near the environments where they originally saw them. Not scary enough? Crows are also known to be grudge-holders. If a person has treated them fairly in the past, they remember it. If they felt abused by a person, they will avoid them in the future. (Hey, at least they don’t retaliate.)

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What's even more incredible is that one kind of crow, the New Caledonian crow, has demonstrated abilities comparable to children. Specifically, they can comprehend cause and effect relationships as well as children who are 7 years old.

Squirrels

Squirrels are so much more than cute and quick little animals racing across your yard. They are actually very smart critters. In fact, without their intelligence, they probably wouldn’t be able to survive long, cold winters. Their cleverness helps them gather and store the food they will need in the future.

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Squirrels also have great memories and seem to be able to learn by observing other squirrels. On that same note, one experiment proved that squirrels are adept at problem-solving when they tried out various techniques to open a locked box.

Bees

Did you ever imagine that bees might be able to tell the difference between a Picasso and a Monet painting? This is thanks to their excellent visual processing skills — and there's more where that came from. Other bee skills include learning and performing tasks to get a reward.

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Bees can also communicate with each other by dancing, jostling and head-butting. Their group decision-making skills are on point as well. When bees have outgrown their hive, hundreds of bees go out to scout new hive locations. Even crazier, they choose the new location through a vote. Cool, right?

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Raccoons

The curiosity of a raccoon is indicative of their intelligence. Combined with that curiosity is also some great problem-solving abilities as well as an innate cleverness in their ability to find food. How could they dig through a garbage can so human-like and end up coming out with exactly the food they were looking for?

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It has also been confirmed by scientists that raccoons have as many neurons in their brains as dogs. Even more, the size of their brain compared to their number of neurons is comparable to a primate. In short, they are some of the most intelligent animals out there.

Sheep

People often think of sheep as lacking intelligence — some call them downright stupid — which is why people call those who follow someone mindlessly "sheep." However, we've got sheep all wrong, because they are actually pretty smart. Their memories are outstanding as well as their ability to recognize faces.

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One study showed that sheep are so smart, they can remember up to 50 faces for more than two years. Another study found that sheep can figure out how to get out of a difficult maze, and the ones who found their way out the fastest waited at the exit to help their friends get out too.

Ravens

Just like their cousin, the crow, ravens are sharp birds. They do things like pre-plan tasks, learn how to use tools and even remember that a tool worked before and opt to use it again as long as 24 hours later. This is something not even monkeys have been able to do.

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Planning a task ahead of time is actually a behavior that researchers always thought only humans could do, so realizing that ravens can do it too has put them in a whole other category of intelligence. Not enough to impress you? It seems ravens even know how to skillfully barter as well.

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Horses

Many people seem to think horses aren't very smart compared to other domesticated animals, but that's not true at all. When studies were conducted, it was determined that horses are rather intelligent creatures. They can recognize human emotions, and they often respond to those emotions in endearing ways.

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Also, horses have learned how to communicate with us in a sort of sign language. One experiment showed that they learned to tell humans whether or not they wanted to wear a rug. When it was sunny, they didn't want one, but when it was cold or wet, they did. Perfectly logical, right?

Baboons

One of the reasons humans and baboons have a history of conflict is because of how smart baboons are. It’s their incredible ability to adapt that puts us at odds with them in the end. We infringe on their natural habitats, and they simply adapt to the new environment instead of moving on. Before long, they start defending the cash crops that have replaced their home.

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Baboons are also extremely social animals, and they maintain relationships for many reasons, some of them strategic, just like humans. Their relationships expand beyond just relatives, and they often last a long time.

Cockatoos

Some of the most social birds, cockatoos are also highly intelligent. Like the parrot, they can widely imitate human sounds and speech, an impressive feat on its own. However, cockatoos can also learn how to resist the temptation for food if they think a better reward is waiting for them at a later time.

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A famous experiment put a bunch of toddlers in a room with some tasty treats. The toddlers learned that if they waited to eat their treats for 15 minutes, they would then get an extra treat. The fact that cockatoos can realize that too is amazing.

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Rats

We already know that rats are intelligent little creatures. After all, they have frequently been used for science and medical trials to test numerous things for humans. What researchers have learned is that rats are extremely curious, they have great memories and they are easy to train.

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Shockingly, one study on rats in 2015 found that when rats are given the same tasks as humans, they sometimes outperform humans. How that could be true, given that a rat brain is so much smaller and simpler than a human brain? That’s the subject of another conversation.

Chickens

The way chickens seem to wander around aimlessly tends to make humans think they are not very intelligent, but the truth is another story. In fact, chickens show many signs of advanced intelligence. For starters, they create social groups among themselves and use 24 unique cries to communicate with each other.

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Chickens are also quite good at problem-solving, they can anticipate future events and they seem to exercise characteristics of self-awareness. Even more, much like the human brain, the chicken brain is divided into a left and right hemisphere, with each side specializing in different tasks.

Orangutans

Orangutan intelligence is far-reaching, and there's a lot of research to prove it. One major sign of their intelligence is their ability to grasp the concept of the future. They even seem to be able to plan for the future. Orangutans have been observed setting aside objects — like rocks — that they later use for various tasks.

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Photo Courtesy: Bernard DUPONT/Flickr

Orangutan's have also shown their ability to plan travel routes and then communicate the route in advance within their group. Besides just planning for the future, they have a sophisticated grasp of communication, including the use of body language and facial expressions.

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Pigeons

Most humans assume that pigeons aren’t the smartest of birds — they eat garbage off the street, after all — but the opposite is actually true. Pigeons are some of the smartest birds on the planet. For instance, studies have tested their math skills, and it has been proven they can count up to three.

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Pigeons may also be able to understand abstract concepts like space and time similar to how humans understand it. These street birds are also remarkably easy to train. It seems that anything you can train a monkey to do, you can also train a pigeon to do. That's intelligence, plain and simple.

Ducks

Ducks have this fantastic ability to imprint upon a mother figure, meaning that the first mother figure they see becomes their "mom." Sometimes (and hopefully) that mother figure is a duck, but sometimes it’s an entirely different animal, like a dog or a human. This may not seem smart at first, but there’s more.

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The fact that ducks can do this could be a sign that they can understand the abstract concept of "same" versus "different." Abstract reasoning is no joke. Not many animals have this ability, and the ones that do — like primates — are considered to be highly intelligent.

Sea Lions

Compared to their size, sea lions have large brains, and that brain size just might be the reason they are the only animal other than humans that can use basic logic. One particular sea lion named Rio was able to solve certain IQ tests that even humans couldn't solve.

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Aside from their ability to use logic, sea lions are very easy to train, another sign of advanced intelligence. For this reason, they have always been popular at aquarium shows. Sea lions have also been trained by the U.S. military to protect naval ships from potential threats.

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Ants

An ant's brain is huge for its body. That being said, ants on their own aren't typically the smartest. Put them together with lots of other ants, though, and they show incredible intellectual prowess in their ability to organize and collaborate.

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The collective intelligence of ants is pretty uncanny. When they work together, they can come up with the most efficient path between their food and their home, for instance. One researcher, Jürgen Kurths, wrote in a 2014 paper that a group of ants is more efficient at processing information than a Google search.

Squid

Based on looks, it’s surprising that squid are some of the smartest creatures in the sea, but human and squid brain cells are remarkably similar. In fact, they are so similar that scientists have studied sections of a squid's brain in an attempt to better understand how our own brains work. Squid brains have specifically been studied to find cures for Alzheimer’s.

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Photo Courtesy: Anderson Mancini/Wikimedia Commons

The squid's excellent ability to communicate has also allowed them to become better hunters when they work together as a team. Their ability to successfully coordinate as they attack their prey has left researchers amazed at their intelligence.

Cows

Cows do seem like simple creatures, standing around and doing nothing more than grazing all day. Despite that, what's going on inside their heads appears to be quite complex. Cows are intelligent beings with complicated emotions.

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Their impressive long-term memories probably have something to do with it, not to mention their ability to experience a wide range of emotions, such as pain, fear and anxiety. Cows are also able to learn new and unique tasks quickly and can figure out where a moving object is located. They can differentiate one human from another as well.

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Portia Labiata Jumping Spiders

Spiders overall are pretty smart, but the Portia Labiata jumping spider tops them all where intelligence is concerned. Their hunting abilities truly show how these magnificent little creatures shine. While most spiders can't see that well, jumping spiders can, and they use that eyesight for masterful trickery.

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Photo Courtesy: Bernard DUPONT/Wikimedia Commons

Jumping spiders lure other spiders out of their webs by learning how to imitate the spider's prey. This causes the spider to leave its web, and that's exactly when the jumping spider attacks and eats it. The complex nature of this scheme proves that jumping spiders are a force to be reckoned with in nature.

Bonobos

A close relative to chimpanzees, bonobos also perform at a very high intellectual level. Their ability to not only learn but expertly use language is quite remarkable. One bonobo in particular, Kanzi, actually understands roughly 3,000 English words.

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A beautiful display of Kanzi's understanding and communication abilities was demonstrated when he went on an outing in the forest. There, he touched the symbols he learned for "fire" and "marshmallow" to communicate that he wanted to roast some marshmallows. He was then provided with matches and twigs, and he happily began roasting his marshmallows.

Goats

Goats eat clothes, and they are famous for being stubborn. Sounds really smart, right? However, what most people don't know is they are really good at figuring out puzzles. In one study, researchers provided goats with a puzzle that included a level that could provide access to a tasty snack.

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Most of the goats in the experiment successfully solved the puzzle. Perhaps that alone isn't that impressive, but the fact that the same goats were given the same puzzle 10 months later and were able to solve the puzzle much more quickly the second time is another story. That's quite a long-term memory.

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