8 Animals That Are Smarter Than You Think

smart animals

8 Animals That Are Smarter Than You Think

Often, when we think of “smart animals,” our minds might dart to our loyal dogs or the ever-curious cats that prowl our living rooms. However, the vast expanse of the animal kingdom is brimming with creatures that exhibit intellectual feats, some of which might just surprise you. From the deep blue oceans to the open skies and dense forests, animals with high IQs flex their brainpower in myriad ways. In this post, we’ll uncover some of the smartest animals whose cognitive abilities challenge what we traditionally consider intelligence. 

Whether you’re an animal enthusiast or simply someone intrigued by the marvels of the natural world, these tales of animal intellect promise a captivating journey. So, let’s dive in and discover more about these remarkable creatures!

1. Crows: The Crafty Toolsmiths

how smart are crows

Crows have a unique social behavior that has mystified scientists: crow funerals. When a crow dies, others gather around the deceased, sometimes in large numbers. While the exact reason isn’t clear, scientists believe this gathering might serve as a form of learning. By inspecting a dead comrade, crows might understand potential threats in the area or even learn about new dangers.

Bay Nature, 2020

Crows are often symbols of mystery and intrigue in literature. Still, in reality, these jet-black birds are astounding scientists and casual observers alike with their profound intelligence and problem-solving skills. Native to almost every continent, these adaptable birds have learned to thrive in various habitats, including bustling urban environments.

One of their most remarkable traits is their ability to use tools – a skill traditionally considered unique to humans and primates. In laboratory settings, New Caledonian crows have demonstrated a knack for bending wires into hooks to retrieve out-of-reach food. In one study, a crow named ‘Betty’ amazed researchers at the University of Oxford by crafting a wire hook to fish out a bucket containing a tasty treat from a vertical tube. But this isn’t just a laboratory phenomenon. In the wild, crows have been observed using sticks to extract insects from tree bark or crevices, displaying their innate understanding of tool use.

Beyond their tool-using capabilities, crows also possess excellent memory. They can recognize human faces and remember those who have wronged them, leading to instances where crows have “held grudges” against specific people.

2. Octopuses: Masters of Disguise and Escape

how smart are octopuses

Octopuses employ a remarkable defense mechanism beyond just squirting ink. Some species, like the mimic octopus, can change not only their skin’s color but its texture as well. They use this ability not just for camouflage but also to impersonate other, more dangerous sea creatures, keeping potential predators at bay.

The Royal Society, 2001

Often found in the world’s oceans’ mysterious depths, octopuses are known for their mesmerizing appearances and unique biology. However, it’s their surprising cognitive abilities that have earned them the title of “ocean’s intelligent invertebrate.” Octopuses possess a complex nervous system and a brain proportionally as large as some birds and mammals, which may explain their sophisticated behaviors.

In the lab, octopuses have shown incredible problem-solving skills. Given a jar with a tasty crab inside, they can quickly figure out how to unscrew the lid, showcasing their understanding of complex mechanisms. Beyond puzzles, octopuses have been observed using coconut shells and other objects as protective shelters, signifying their ability to use tools.

Their talent for escape is legendary. Aquarists often share tales of octopuses sneaking out of their enclosures, sometimes venturing into neighboring tanks for a snack, and then returning to their own home.

3. Dolphins: Underwater Strategists

how smart are dolphins

Every dolphin has a signature whistle, a unique vocalization that acts like a name. This allows them to maintain strong social bonds, call out to specific members in their pod, or even seek out lost family members across the vast ocean expanses.

The Guardian, 2013

Dolphins, the darlings of the sea, are celebrated for their playful nature and acrobatics. But beneath the surface (literally and figuratively) lies one of the ocean’s most complex and intelligent beings. With brains larger than humans in proportion to body size, dolphins exhibit cognitive abilities that rival many terrestrial animals.

Their hunting techniques are a testament to their intelligence. In Florida’s shallow waters, for instance, dolphins use a technique called “mud-ring feeding.” A single dolphin circles around and kicks up mud, forming a murky ring. Fish trapped inside this ring, attempting to escape, jump straight into the mouths of waiting dolphins.

Communication is another area where dolphins shine. They use a range of vocalizations, from clicks to whistles, to communicate with pod members. These vocal patterns can convey everything from joy to distress, allowing intricate interactions within their groups.

Want to learn more amazing facts about dolphins? Check out The Ultimate Dolphin Book for Kids.

4. Elephants: The Gentle Giants with a Fantastic Memory

how smart are elephants

Elephants have been known to exhibit altruistic behavior. In certain cases, they’ve been observed aiding other injured animals, showcasing their deep empathy and understanding of the world around them.

Southern Thailand Elephant Foundation

Elephants, the majestic mammals that roam the plains and forests of Africa and Asia, are revered not just for their imposing presence but also for their profound intelligence. With the largest brain among land animals, their cognitive abilities are vast and multifaceted.

One of the most touching displays of elephant intelligence is their social behavior. These creatures form deep familial bonds, where herds are usually led by a matriarch who guides, protects, and imparts knowledge to the younger members. Their long-term memory is legendary, with older elephants recalling water sources from decades past, especially during droughts.

Their emotional depth is evident in their reactions to death. Elephants have been observed showing intense interest in the bones of their deceased, often touching and investigating them with their trunks and feet, a behavior researchers believe may be a form of mourning.

Fun Fact: Elephants have been known to exhibit altruistic behavior. In certain cases, they’ve been observed aiding other injured animals, showcasing their deep empathy and understanding of the world around them.

Can’t get enough of these smart animals? Check out The Ultimate Elephant Book for Kids!

5. Pigeons: Sky Navigators and Art Critics

During World Wars I and II, pigeons, due to their unmatched navigational abilities, played crucial roles as message carriers. One famous pigeon named “Cher Ami” saved nearly 200 soldiers in World War I by delivering a vital message despite being injured.


While pigeons in urban settings might be dismissed as mere “city doves” or pests, they possess remarkable abilities that have been harnessed by humans for millennia. Their innate ability to navigate vast distances and find their way home has made them indispensable as message carriers throughout history.

Researchers have found that pigeons use a combination of visual, magnetic, and olfactory cues to navigate. Their homing ability is so precise that even when released hundreds of miles away from their home lofts, they can return with incredible accuracy.

Beyond their navigational prowess, pigeons have demonstrated the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, indicating a level of self-awareness. And yes, they can even differentiate between different styles of art! In a study, pigeons were trained to peck at images by impressionist painters and could distinguish them from other art styles.

6. Rats: The Tiny Thinkers with Big Brains

how smart are rats?

Rats are known to display a behavior that looks remarkably like joy! When they’re tickled or play, they emit high-pitched chirping sounds, which researchers believe is their way of laughing.

Science.org, 2016

When people think of rats, they might imagine creatures scurrying in alleyways or perhaps the stars of lab experiments. However, there’s so much more to these rodents. Rats are incredibly intelligent animals that exhibit complex cognitive behaviors, putting them on par with many larger mammals.

In laboratories, rats have proven to be quick learners. They can master mazes, recognize objects, and even play hide-and-seek with researchers! Beyond their problem-solving capabilities, rats also show a deep capacity for emotion. They demonstrate empathy by helping other rats in distress and have even been observed to forgo treats to save a fellow rat from an unpleasant situation.

Their social structure is intricate, with rats communicating through high-frequency sounds and tactile signals. They form bonds with fellow rats and even with humans if socialized from a young age.

7. Honeybees: The Tiny Architects with a Hive Mind

how smart are bees?

Honeybees have the ability to recognize human faces! In a study, bees were trained to associate pictures of human faces with sweet treats. Even after the treats were removed, the bees could remember and fly towards the faces they recognized.

RMIT, 2018

Often celebrated for their essential role in pollination and honey production, honeybees are a testament to the power of collective intelligence. Each individual bee might seem simple, but together, they form a superorganism with incredible problem-solving and decision-making capabilities.

Honeybees communicate through an intricate dance called the “waggle dance.” Through this dance, they can convey the location, distance, and quality of a food source to their hive mates. This form of communication is so precise that other bees can decode the dancer’s movements and find the exact location of the food source based on the information.

Their hive structures, the honeycombs, are marvels of architectural genius. Built with precise hexagonal cells, they provide the maximum storage space with the least amount of building material.

Honeybees also exhibit democratic decision-making when selecting a new nesting site. Scout bees will search for potential sites, return to the hive, and “pitch” their finds through dance. The colony then makes a collective decision based on these pitches.

8. Parrots: The Feathered Orators with a Flair for Problem Solving

how smart are parrots?

While many know parrots for their ability to mimic speech, some species, like the Lyrebird, can mimic chainsaws, camera shutters, and other birds’ songs so accurately that even the original birds can be fooled!

Tree Hugger, 2017

Bright, vibrant, and vocal – parrots are often the center of attention in any setting. But beyond their captivating colors and ability to mimic human speech, these birds possess a cognitive brilliance that has amazed scientists and bird enthusiasts alike.

Native to tropical and subtropical regions, parrots have evolved a level of intelligence that rivals primates. Their brain-to-body size ratio is comparable to that of dolphins and humans, hinting at their significant cognitive capabilities.

One of the most notable parrots was Alex, an African Grey, who was the subject of a 30-year experiment by animal psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Alex could recognize colors, shapes, and quantities. He could even understand abstract concepts like ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller’, ‘same’ and ‘different’. But it wasn’t just about rote learning; Alex displayed the ability to reason and express his desires and emotions.

Moreover, many parrots exhibit problem-solving skills in the wild. For instance, to access a tasty nut or seed, they’ve been observed using leaves or twigs as makeshift tools, showcasing their adaptability and ingenuity.

Discover More Smart Animals

Want to learn more cool stuff about animals? You’re in the right spot! Our collection of animal books are packed with fun stories and awesome facts for kids who are curious about the animal world. From parrots to dolphins and beyond, there’s so much to discover. Check out our animal books now and start your wild adventure. Click here to see our collection.

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Melbourne, Australia jenny@bellanovabooks.com