10 Most Intelligent Animals

Species besides humans that think and solve problems

Dogs are intelligent animals.
Dogs are intelligent animals. Kim Christensen / EyeEm / Getty Images

Animal intelligence is hard to pin down because "intelligence" takes different forms. Examples of types of intelligence include language comprehension, self-recognition, cooperation, altruism, problem-solving, and mathematics skills. It's easy to recognize intelligence in other primates, but there are many other species that may be smarter than you think. Here are some of the most intelligent.

01
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Ravens and Crows

Raven and crows make and use tools.
Raven and crows make and use tools. Colleen Gara / Getty Images

The entire Corvid family of birds is clever. The group includes magpies, jays, ravens, and crows. These birds are the only non-primate vertebrates that invent their own tools. Crows recognize human faces, communicate complex concepts with other crows, and think about the future. Many experts compare crow intelligence to that of a 7-year-old human child.

02
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Chimpanzees

Chimps can make spears and other simple tools.
Chimps can make spears and other simple tools. Tier Und Naturfotografie J und C Sohns / Getty Images

Chimps are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, so it's unsurprising they display intelligence similar to that of humans. Chimps fashion spears and other tools, display a wide range of emotions, and recognize themselves in a mirror. Chimps can learn sign language to communicate with humans.

03
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Elephants

Elephants can cooperate with each other to solve problems.
Elephants can cooperate with each other to solve problems. Don Smith / Getty Images

Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal. The cortex of an elephant's brain has as many neurons as a human brain. Elephants have exceptional memories, cooperate with each other, and demonstrate self-awareness. Like primates and birds, they engage in play.

04
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Gorillas

Gorillas can form complex sentences.
Gorillas can form complex sentences. dikkyoesin1 / Getty Images

The gorilla named Koko became famous for learning sign language and caring for a pet cat. Gorillas can form original sentences to communicate with humans and understand the use of symbols to represent objects and more complex concepts.

05
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Dolphins

Dolphins are clever enough to devise deceptions.
Dolphins are clever enough to devise deceptions. Global_Pics / Getty Images

Dolphins and whales are at least as smart as birds and primates. A dolphin has a large brain relative to its body size. The cortex of a human brain is highly convoluted, but a dolphin brain has even more folds! Dolphins and their kin are the only marine animals that have passed the mirror test of self-awareness.

06
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Pigs

Even young piglets understand how reflection in a mirror works.
Even young piglets understand how reflection in a mirror works. www.scottcartwright.co.uk / Getty Images

Pigs solve mazes, understand and display emotions, and understand symbolic language. Piglets grasp the concept of reflection at a younger age than humans. Six-week-old piglets that see food in a mirror can work out where the food is located. In contrast, it takes human babies several months to understand reflection. Pigs also understand abstract representations and can apply this skill to play video games using a joystick.

07
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Octopuses

An octopus in an aquarium may break a light if it's too annoying.
An octopus in an aquarium may break a light if it's too annoying. Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

While we're most familiar with intelligence in other vertebrates, some invertebrates are incredibly clever. The octopus has the largest brain of any invertebrate, yet three-fifths of its neurons are actually in its arms. The octopus is the only invertebrate that uses tools. An octopus named Otto was known to throw rocks and spray water at the bright overhead lights of his aquarium in order to short them out.

08
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Parrots

Parrots can solve logic puzzles.
Parrots can solve logic puzzles. Lisa Lake / Getty Images

Parrots are thought to be as smart as a human child. These birds solve puzzles and also understand the concept of cause and effect. The Einstein of the parrot world is the African Grey, a bird known for its astounding memory and ability to count. African Grey parrots can learn an impressive number of human words and use them in context to communicate with people.

09
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Dogs

German shepherds are known for quickly learning new commands.
German shepherds are known for quickly learning new commands. Doreen Zorn / Getty Images

Man's best friend uses its intelligence to relate to humans. Dogs understand emotions, show empathy, and understand symbolic language. According to canine intelligence expert Stanley Coren, the average dog understand around 165 human words. However, they can learn many more. A border collie named Chaser demonstrated understanding of 1022 words. An analysis of his vocabulary was published in the February 2011 issue of the Behavioural Processes Journal.

10
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Raccoons

Raccoons can pick complicated locks.
Raccoons can pick complicated locks. Picture by Tambako the Jaguar / Getty Images

Aesop's fable of the Crow and the Pitcher could have been written about a raccoon. Researchers at the USDA National Wildlife Center and the University of Wyoming gave raccoons a pitcher of water containing marshmallows and some pebbles. In order to reach the marshmallows, the raccoons had to raise the water level. Half of the raccoons figured out how to use pebbles to get the treat. Another simply found a way to knock over the pitcher.

Raccoons are also notoriously good at picking locks and can remember solutions to problems for three years.

11
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Other Smart Animals

Pigeons and doves may look stupid, but they have a surprising grasp of math.
Pigeons and doves may look stupid, but they have a surprising grasp of math. Fernando Trabanco Fotografía / Getty Images

Really, a list of ten animals barely touches the surface of animal intelligence. Other animals that boast super-smarts include rats, squirrels, cats, otters, pigeons, and even chickens.

Colony-forming species, such as bees and ants, display a different sort of intelligence. While an individual might not accomplish great feats, insects work together to solve problems in a way that rivals vertebrate intelligence.

Key Points

  • High intelligence exists in both vertebrates and invertebrates. 
  • It's difficult to test intelligence in non-human animals. The mirror test is one measure of self-awareness. Social skills, emotional capacity, problem-solving, and mathematical ability also indicate intelligence.
  • All vertebrates show some degree of intelligence. High levels of invertebrate intelligence are seen in cephalopods and insect colonies.