If you didn’t know, animals are pretty smart. Most of their feats might go unnoticed in the face of us being able to make computers and the downfall of our own society, but there’s a lot more ticking behind the eyes of the crow you saw on the street. Also, humans can be pretty dumb. It’s pretty difficult to directly answer “what is the smartest animal,” but there are a handful of impressive contenders on different metrics.
How Do You Measure Smart Animals?
Measuring animal intelligence is an entire field of study, and trying to figure out animal cognition isn’t easy. There’s the concept of Morgan’s Canon as well, which is a really long way of simplifying animal behavior. It’s kind of like Occam’s Razor, the idea being animals behave with purpose. Morgan’s Canon holds that all animal behavior should not be anthropomorphized unless there is no other explanation. Ergo, if it’s possible to say an animal is doing something because it’s hungry, trying to advance its genome, defending itself, was conditioned to do that thing etc. then we should assume that’s what the animal is doing. We can only apply emotion, intent, or self-awareness to animal actions if all other, simpler explanations have been exhausted.
For example, Lloyd Morgan, who Morgan’s Canon is named, observed his dog opening a gate. Without context, we might say his pet had obtained some kind of insight, figuring out Morgan’s gate by understanding the latches, hinges, and applying that understanding with knowledge of cause and effect to open the gate. Morgan watched his dog work on the gate, though, and ultimately concluded that his dog was simply using a process of trial and error as a process of procedural learning–rather than a higher level of thinking. Which is not unimpressive, it’s a sign of intelligence. Morgan’s terrier probably couldn’t figure out a new gate and would have to start all over if we apply Morgan’s Canon. This framework for animal cognition has largely been held since the 19th-Century.
You probably aren’t surprised to hear that measuring brainpower is hard, measuring human intelligence is already a controversial topic. It’s hard to have large sample sizes to control for when trying to measure brainpower–human or otherwise. Plus, animal intelligence is largely based on anecdotes. Heard of Rico the border collie? Rico’s intelligence is super impressive, with a vocabulary of 200 words and able to remember them a month later when identifying objects. That’s pretty cool! But Rico is probably the exception, not the rule. To figure that out though we’d need to design an experiment with a bunch of dogs, which if you’ve ever tried to walk a couple dogs, you know is no easy feat.
Just because animal intelligence is hard to measure doesn’t mean we don’t try. Normally we use self-control, awareness, and memory to figure out animal brainpower. For example there’s the point test, where you train an animal to expect food at a certain place. Then move the food and point to the new place. If the animal goes to the new place it passes, but if it looks for the food at the location it’s been conditioned to find that food, it fails. This is a test of self-control, and most babies pass it by age 1. Many animals fail, though–even chimpanzees, which we normally point to as hallmarks of animal intelligence. On the flipside, domesticated mammals are really good at this test, but our dogs wanting to eat their own vomit would like to speak against them being super smart.
Animals are normally tested for their self-awareness with mirrors. Basically, if an animal can recognize that the reflection in the mirror is not a different animal, it passes. It means the animal has a concept of identity. Sample sizes for this test have been historically small, you may have heard that elephants can pick themselves out in mirrors from a 2013 experiment. But they only had like 11 elephants, and only two thirds of them passed. Imagine having 7 (two thirds of 11) people’s intelligence determining the intelligence of our entire species.
Plus, animal testing normally doesn’t replicate their environment. Elephants don’t encounter mirrors in the wild.
But you probably wanted to hear about some smart animals.
Some of the Smartest Animals
Here’s a study where 8 New Caledonian crows were able to solve problems they’d never encountered before with no assistance. Even if it’s just an indicator of procedural learning, the birds figured out how to use new tools to get access to their food in only a few minutes.
Further Reading: What’s the Difference Between a Crow and a Raven?
Dolphin memory abilities are well documented, and some studies have even shown they (though similarly anecdotal like elephants) can recognize themselves in mirrors. That’s to say nothing of how they communicate. Plus if you’re using brain size relative to body size as a metric for intelligence, dolphins are super up there–second only to humans. In raw size by the way, dolphins have bigger brains than us.
Plus we’ve observed dolphins seemingly killing stuff for uh… Fun.
Grey Squirrels & Elephants
They’re really good at remembering things, remembering the locations of thousands of nuts they’ve hidden for months. They’ve even learned over time that other squirrels might steal their nuts, so they pretend to bury them to trick others.
Similarly, anecdotal evidence supports that elephants have year-spanning memories. It’s what they’re kind of known for in the intelligence department. Impressive, because we can’t even remember what we ate for breakfast today. Did we eat breakfast?
Portia Jumping Spiders
Portia jumping spiders have exhibited the ability to procedurally learn through trial and error when hunting new prey in new locations. They also have been shown to remember the tactics they learn. It also appears that they can discriminate between other spiders they do or don’t know. Not overly impressive until you remember that we’re talking about a spider. Little bugger’s jumping around with like 600,000 neurons. You have 86 billion.
You’ve probably heard that octopuses and other cephalopods have some impressive brainpower. Some octopuses are in the half-billion range for neurons, comparable to dogs. They’ve learned to solve problems in captivity, and we’ve observed octopuses using tools in the wild. Plus there are all the stories of octopus escape artistry.
Chimpanzees and Other Primates
Obviously we were going to mention primates, studying their cognition is its own field of study. We’ve taught them sign language, observed tool use, and all sorts of neat problem solving techniques you’ve heard about. Funnily enough, primates have yet to display the ability to ask questions. We’re still working out why humans seem to be the only primate capable of asking what things are.
We’ve talked about smart animals but what about smart people? See if you’re smarter than our average user here.