What is animal intelligence?

Intelligence is one of the defining features of being human and it comes in various forms. For example, there’s verbal-linguistic intelligence (communicative ability), spatial intelligence (the ability to observe the world with the mind’s eye), logical-mathematical intelligence (the ability to solve mathematical problems) and emotional intelligence (the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others). There are also other types of intelligence which, in the process of understanding the workings of the human mind, we have tried to disentangle and define.

However, when we talk of animal intelligence, we talk in quite different terms. The study of animal intelligence has a long history. Ever since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, scientists have attempted to understand how animals think, comparing and contrasting this with human thought.

We can define animal intelligence as the combination of skills and abilities that allow animals to live in and adapt to their specific environments.

What does this actualy mean? Animals possess the ability to adapt to their surroundings by learning to change their habits and behaviours. Many species are also capable of forming social groups. All of these characteristics are based on the animal’s capacity to process information and, by assessing this capacity, we can make a judgement regarding the relative intelligence of different species.

The most intelligent animals


By far the world’s smartest invertebrates, octopuses can carry out complex tasks, such as opening a jar to get to its contents. Not only do they have a good short and long term memory but also a remarkable ability to learn new skills from the moment they’re born. For example, the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) is able to impersonate other species in order to protect itself from predators.

Octopus underwater. Olga Visavi | Shutterstock.com
Octopus underwater. Olga Visavi | Shutterstock.com


Dolphins are extremely sociable creatures with a highly developed ability to adapt to their habitat. They help one another when injured or ill and, thanks to their individually distinct calls, they’re able to pass on their knowledge to others. In fact, the list of high level cognitive abilities – including identification, differentiation and behavioural control – goes on and on.


These are mankind’s closest relatives. Chimpanzees are sociable animals and form elaborate communities. They are skilled at using different types of tools to carry out complex tasks, such as thin sticks to extract termites and rocks to open fruits. Combined with a powerful memory, these abilities make the chimpanzee the most intelligent (non-human) animal on Earth.


Pigs are highly adaptable mammals with a keen ability to learn new skills. In fact, some studies suggest that an adult pig may have a level of intelligence comparable to that of a three year old child! This would make them far smarter than other domestic animals, such as dogs and cats.


These birds have an incredible ability to recognise different human faces and have a high aptitude for communication, as can seen by their knack for impersonating human voices. Besides this, parrots possess an excellent memory, which helps them solve complex problems.

Grey African parrot. By Tracy Starr | Shutterstock.com
Grey African parrot. By Tracy Starr | Shutterstock.com


Elephants boast the largest brain of all land animals. These animals are renowned for their sociability and can express a wide range of emotions, including happiness and compassion, as well as pain and grief. They display acts of altruism and self awareness. With a greater memory than even us humans, an elephant truly never forgets!


These remarkable birds are capable of constructing tools, usings them and saving them for future use. Their cognitive abilities include problem-solving, reasoning and even self-awareness. Despite their relatively small brain, they have a good memory. They can remember other members of their own species and even recognise humans when they pose a threat.


Rats dream in a similar way to that of humans. Thanks to their ability to process different sensorial cues, they can analyse situations and make their way out of complex mazes. Interestingly, they have been found to display high levels of empathy, making sacrifices for other members of their species. Rats can even make calculations in order to obtain food from a trap without being caught!


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I'm a photographer, designer and future zoologist. I write about wildlife and do the artwork for Zoo Portraits and other creative projects.



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