Animal intelligence is a difficult thing to judge, but it’s clear we aren’t the only smart species roaming this Earth.
We all know how smart our pets can be. Dogs and cats let us know what they want and seemingly manipulate us into getting their own way. Researchers discovered in 2017 that dogs have twice the number of neurons in their cerebral cortexes than cats, which should give them a cognitive advantage and confirm anecdotal reports that dogs are easier to train.
The Frontiers in Neuroanatomy study also found that based on neurons, racoons should also have similar capabilities to dogs. But don’t worry, cat owners, the study highlighted the need for systematic cognitive capacity comparisons across all three animals before ruling dogs are the smartest pet.
Chimpanzees and bonobos are fiercely intelligent creatures with complex social hierarchies. That’s not really surprising, considering they share 98.7 per cent of their DNA with humans. Chimpanzees are famous for their great variety of tool use and both species are excellent problem solvers.
The Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp found that bonobos were better at solving puzzles than chimpanzees, beating them in intelligence tests. However, this appeared to be largely down to the persistence of one individual bonobo.
Crows and ravens
Ravens and crows are living proof that it’s not the size of your brain that counts but how you use it. These animals learn quickly, with research suggesting four-month-old ravens could be as intelligent as some adult apes. Experiments have also shown that ravens can plan for the future with tools they’re taught to use by humans. Crows on the other hand have an excellent memory and remember human faces, identifying certain people as friend and others as foe.
Call it human bias, but all of the great apes are going on this list. Gorillas, along with chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, can be trained to communicate using some sign language. A famous gorilla named Koko took it one step further and reportedly mastered sign language. Koko is said to have known more than 1,000 hand signs and understood 2,000 words of spoken English. In the wild, gorillas use tools, have busy social lives and even laugh.
Dolphins are quick learners that can mimic human behaviour, solve problems, teach others and demonstrate self-awareness. Both whales and dolphins have larger brains than humans – though humans have a higher brain-to-body ratio – and they have the power to locate objects through sound with echolocation. Researchers have also documented dolphins playing around to entertain themselves, including using shells and other ocean objects as toys.
Bees have been dubbed the “world’s smartest insect” for good reason. They can solve puzzles and have exceptional navigational skills. One experiment found bees work out the optimal route to a flower with repeated visits, significantly reducing the time it takes for them to get there. Another experiment found that bees create mental images of objects like humans do and can transmit recognition of objects across their senses. For example, they can identify objects in the dark by touch if they’ve seen them before.
Octopuses are the eight-armed Houdinis of the animal kingdom with a remarkable ability to escape human confinement. There are stories of octopuses figuring out how to break out of tanks and even squirt water at overhead lights to turn them off. But people who have worked with octopuses say it’s not just that they’re smart. They’re aware.