Ranking the smartest animals in the world is tricky. After all, what is intelligence? How do we measure it?
Humans tend to define the world’s smartest animals as the ones most similar to us. That means our fellow apes usually rank highly.
Yet, there are many forms of intelligence.
Most animals couldn’t complete an IQ test, but they’re perfectly adapted to their own unique challenges.
Humans can do many things other animals can’t, and vice versa. Throw us in the ocean and tell us to camouflage like an octopus, and we’d be in trouble.
That makes it hard to compare creatures that have very different niches.
However, it’s still obvious that some animals are more gifted in the brains department. Language, tool use, problem solving, and self-awareness are signs of smartness some species possess.
While this list is in order, it’s more of a general idea. And, of course, it features plenty of smart African animals.
Most experts agree that the same few species should be near the top of the rankings, though the order might vary.
Beyond that, it gets a bit harder. Everyone will have their own opinions on what makes an animal “smart”.
Check out this list of the top 25 smartest animals in the world and see what you think. How would your rankings differ?
We see a lot of ourselves in chimpanzees. They can be violent, but also curious, resourceful, and cooperative.
That’s no surprise, since we share around 99% of our DNA with these African apes.
Chimps are some of the best tool-users in the animal kingdom. They can smash open nuts with rocks and stick thin branches into termite mounds to gather an insect lunch.
They’re also very social animals, living in large communities. Sometimes they’ll even wage “wars”, with coordinated assaults on other groups of chimps.
Smart doesn’t always mean friendly.
Tied at the top, it’s our other closest relative, the bonobo.
It’s tough to separate chimp and bonobo intelligence. Chimps have the edge in tool use, but bonobos “were more skilled at solving tasks related to theory of mind” in a 2010 study.
One competition even crowned bonobos the most intelligent ape. In the contest, at Antwerp zoo, the bonobos beat chimpanzees 4-2 in various intelligence tests.
Bonobos have complex, matriarchal societies and often solve conflicts non-violently.
They’re also skilled language users. One captive bonobo, Kanzi, could communicate with humans via a custom “keyboard” and learned hundreds of symbols.
Orcas, or killer whales, have the second-largest brains of any animal. That’s impressive when you consider there are several larger species in the ocean.
While size is important, that’s not all. Orcas’ brains are more heavily folded than even humans’.
A “wrinklier” brain equals more surface area. That means more neurons, helping them handle more data and process it faster.
Orcas display complex communication, a wide range of hunting strategies, and can pass down knowledge through generations.
As such intelligent creatures, they often suffer from a lack of social interaction and mental stimulation in captivity.
4: Bottlenose Dolphin
Most whales and dolphins are very smart, but bottlenose dolphins are one of the cleverest cetaceans.
Their brains are much larger than expected for their body size, and much of their behaviour shows off their smarts.
Bottlenose dolphins pass the mirror test, which gauges self-recognition, with flying colours. Calves can recognise themselves at 7 months – human babies take two years!
Orangutans have usually been placed behind chimps and bonobos on the intelligence scale.
It’s not as clear-cut as we thought, though, and scientists are constantly finding new displays of orangutan intelligence.
They’re tool users, using sticks and branches to build nests, scare off rivals, and reach objects. Captive orangutans, especially, show curiosity and experiment more than their wild counterparts.
A recent study showed that orangutans are the only non-human primates to “talk” about the past.
6: African Grey Parrot
Language is something that takes a certain level of intelligence, and parrots are some of the chattiest animals in the world. They’ve even mastered many of our own words.
Do they know what they’re saying, or is it just mimicry? It’s thought that some parrots really do understand context for some words and phrases.
The African grey parrot is especially known for its smarts. One individual, called Alex, could name various objects, colours, and even form short phrases. Alex’s responses to questions showed he wasn’t merely mimicking the human language.
Parrots don’t just excel at language. Another African grey parrot outperformed Harvard undergraduates in a visual memory test.
Gorillas might not be quite as intelligent as some of their fellow apes, but they’re still among the world’s smartest animals.
Highly social creatures, gorillas have a range of different vocalisations. They grieve for family members, laugh and play, and demonstrate tool use.
One famous captive gorilla named Koko could also communicate with humans via a special kind of sign language.
Gorillas have had mixed results in the mirror test. Some individuals have recognised themselves, while others have “failed”.
The largest land animal also has the largest brain of any land animal.
Elephants have complex social lives, show grief, and can display altruism. They’ve been known to aid other species in need – even humans.
They often use branches to scratch themselves, swat flies, or brandish as a weapon.
The saying “an elephant never forgets” is accurate, too. Elephants can remember productive foraging areas from many years ago and return in times of scarcity.
9: Crow (Corvids)
Corvids (the crow family) comprise many of the most intelligent bird species, including crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.
Studies have suggested that crows are self-aware and capable of analytical thought. They’re also great problem solvers and can use tools to access food.
Not only that, but they can also remember human faces and even hold a grudge against humans who have wronged them.
Best to stay on their good side, then.
One of the few invertebrates high up on the list, octopus intelligence is hard to define. After all, they’re so different to us and our fellow mammals.
There’s no doubt they’re smart, though. They can navigate mazes, complete tasks to get food, and are talented escape artists. One species even carries Portuguese man o’ war tentacles as a weapon!
One issue preventing octopuses from being even smarter is their short lifespan. Parents don’t live long enough to pass on knowledge to their young, unlike many of the other smartest animal species.
11: Monkey (Baboons & Mandrills)
There are so many smart monkeys, including Africa’s several baboon species.
Mandrills are another of the smartest primates. One captive male was seen breaking twigs and cleaning his toenails with the splinters!
12: Sperm Whale
Sperm whales are another brainy species – literally. They hold the title of “largest brain in the animal kingdom”, at up to 9.2 kg (20 lbs). That’s five times heavier than a human’s!
Sperm whales have intricate language, complex social structures, and deserve a high spot on any list of smartest animals in the world.
Brain size isn’t everything, though. As one of the largest animals in the world, you’d expect the sperm whale to have a big brain.
A measure of relative brain size, called EQ (Encephalisation quotient), ranks sperm whales behind fellow cetaceans like orcas and bottlenose dolphins.
13: Dog (African Hunting Dogs)
Everyone knows “man’s best friend” is one of the smartest animals in the world. Canine intelligence varies quite a lot when it comes to breeds, with collies, shepherds, and retrievers often considered the smartest dogs.
But what about the domestic dog’s wild relatives?
Africa’s own canine, the African wild dog or African hunting dog, is no slouch when it comes to brainpower.
They live in complex, matriarchal social groups, where cooperation is key.
They’re not above deception, either. Lower-ranking hyenas sometimes give false alarm cries during feeding, so they can get space at the carcass.
15: Cat (Lions)
Cats may not be as trainable as dogs, but is that because they’re not as smart? Maybe they just don’t want to! They’re notoriously stubborn, after all.
Are domesticated or wild felines smarter? It’s a tough question. Among wild cats, the lion is a frontrunner when it comes to intelligence.
Lions are the most social of the big cats, and many experts believe that communal living requires a lot of brain power.
Some tests have backed up this theory. In puzzle-solving tasks, lions outperformed tigers and leopards.
The “trash panda” may not be beloved by all, but its adaptability to urban environments shows how smart it is.
Some scientists believe that raccoons could be among the smartest animals in the world. They perform well in problem-solving tasks, like escaping from crates by using latches.
Raccoons also remember the solutions and perform better the next time.
Pigs are smarter than many people assume. Some suggest they’re as intelligent as canines, but pigs haven’t been studied as much as many other species.
In the tests that have been done, pigs have performed well. They’re skilled at navigating mazes and can even “play” video games using a joystick with their snouts.
Rats are more than their reputation of disease-spreaders.
These rodents have been the subject of many laboratory tests. Results have shown they’re adept at learning new skills and problem solving.
They’re also surprisingly emotional creatures with rich social lives. They even show empathy towards their kin.
It’s fun to watch squirrels running around, seemingly forgetting where they buried all those nuts.
It’s more impressive when you realise just how much information they can retain. Remembering the location of thousands of pieces of food takes a lot of brain power.
They also engage in trickery. When a squirrel knows it’s being watched, it will sometimes pretend to bury a nut to deter nut thieves.
20: Honey Badger
The mustelids (weasel family) are a brainy bunch of mammals. While the honey badger, or ratel, is known for its “badass” reputation, its intelligence is also impressive.
Honey badgers have large brains for their body size and, in the few tests that have been done, they’ve demonstrated problem-solving skills.
Captive honey badgers have also worked together to escape their enclosures.
Pigeons are another group of avians that defy the “bird-brained” reputation.
There have been many studies done on pigeon intelligence. These have shown that pigeons can count and can even learn certain words.
In one famous experiment in 1995, pigeons were even trained to distinguish between Picasso and Monet paintings!
The world’s tallest animal has hidden depths, according to recent studies.
Giraffes have much more advanced social relationships than previously thought. Adult females live a long time past reproductive age, allowing them to pass on valuable information and skills to younger generations.
Cows are surprisingly smart. They can learn different tasks, have long-term memory, and recognise their friends in the herd.
Individual cows, like humans, can also have distinct personalities.
24: Honey Bee
Sure, it’s a different kind of intelligence. But you could argue that bees are some of the smartest animals in the world, in their own way.
They have highly sophisticated communication and live in huge communities that require cooperation on a large scale.
Ants are another group of eusocial insects.
Alone, they may not be the smartest animal, but with their collective brainpower, they can do great things. Some species even “farm” their own food, harvesting fungus or keeping aphids and feeding on their secretions.
Celebrating the Smartest Animals in the World
It’s very difficult to accurately rank the world’s smartest animals in order. Hopefully, this list has shown some amazing feats of intelligence from our fellow creatures.
There are many other animals that didn’t make this list, but that doesn’t make them “stupid”. Some species display others kinds of intelligence or are just too different for us to properly measure.
For wild animals, “smartness” relates to their ability to adapt to and survive in their environment. From the humble ant to the African elephant, animal intelligence is on display wherever you look.
Whether it’s a savanna safari, or a rainforest expedition to see our ape cousins, why not plan a trip to see some of Africa’s smartest animals?