The Smartest Animals in the World

    August 4, 2011 at 6:00 am

    Rise of the Apes opens in theaters tomorrow, and that means two things will be happening next week: James Franco will still be doing something weird and off-beat, and some people are going to be overcome with an inexplicable fear that some super-smart lab apes are going to take over the world and annihilate the human race. Don’t worry, it’s not going to happen! James Franco is going to be way too busy next week to participate in any off-beat activities. Oh, and the super-smart ape thing will probably definitely happen, but apes aren’t the only incredibly smart animals that we have to worry about. These are 10 of the smartest animals in the world, and our future animal overlords could be any one of them.


    smart chimp

    Everybody knows that apes are the smartest animals (besides humans) on the planet, and that makes perfect sense because they’re our closest evolutionary relatives. There are four types of apes besides humans: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons. Gibbons are categorized as “Lesser Apes”, which is basically a nice way of saying they’re stupid, but decades of testing and research on chimps, gorillas, and orangutans have yielded startling insights into the intelligence and problem solving abilities of the Greater Apes. Chimps are commonly thought to be the most intelligent of the ape genus, but recent studies suggest that gorillas may be just as smart, if not smarter, than chimps. The most famous super-intelligent gorilla, Koko the Gorilla, knows over 1,000 words in sign language and can carry on fluent sign language conversations with her handlers. She also tells jokes and has her own pet cats, which is more than I can say for some of my human neighbors, and she figured out how to blow up a balloon, which is (strangely) something that scientists thought only humans could do. Rise of the Apes has it right in that regard: if there’s any species that would probably try to revolt against the human race first, it would be the apes.


    We’re all familiar with crows. They’re those large, creepy looking birds that are always pecking around at crumpled up McDonald’s bags in the gutter trying to get to the last few bag fries. Many people don’t like crows because they seem devious and menacing, thanks in part to Edgar Allen Poe and the fact that a group of crows is called a “murder”, which is never very inviting. But crows are some of the most clever, innovative, and adaptive minds in the animal kingdom. The video above focuses on a group of crows in Japan who figured out how to utilize street traffic and crosswalks to get to their favorite snacks, which is something that I wouldn’t even think of. Crows have also been known to craft tools out of wire, and some cities are even training crows to pick up litter and deposit it into machines that reward them with treats. We’re still smarter than crows, though. Let’s not start worrying until they’re training us to pick up their garbage.

    Jumping Spiders

    jumping spiderI bet you didn’t expect to see Jumping Spiders on this list, did you? They may be incredibly small, but the Portia Labiata Jumping Spider is the Stephen Hawking of the insect world, and it may even be smart enough to contend with some of the planet’s larger braniacs, too. Jumping Spiders perform astoundingly well in laboratory insect intelligence tests (which is apparently something that actually exists), and their problem solving and trial-and-error hunting abilities are unsurpassed. Jumping Spiders in nature have a special move, as well. They’re incredibly good at luring other spiders from their webs by pretending to be captured insects. When the Jumping Spider approaches another spider’s web, it will pluck a few of the web’s threads using a specific rhythms to mimic trapped insects. Each species of spider responds particularly well to certain rhythms, and the Jumping Spider will actually remember which beat to play for each type of spider it encounters. Then when the stupid spider comes over to check out his catch, the hunter becomes the hunted. This type of cognitive ability and pre-planning is unheard of in the rest of the bug world, suggesting that Jumping Spiders are pretty freakin’ smart.


    smart elephant paintingMost of us are aware that elephants have astounding memories, thanks to the old saying “Elephants never forget”. But elephants use their gigantic brains (the largest of any land animal in the animal kingdom) for a lot more than just remembering things. Elephants actually create incredibly detailed mental landscape maps of the terrain they encounter, which allows them to remember the locations of food sources and watering holes in places they haven’t visited for years. An elephant is also one of the few animals that can recognize itself in a mirror, and that sees itself as a unique individual. This sense of individuality is rare in the animal kingdom, and it’s the basis for a whole host of (usually) human emotions, such as empathy, grief, altruism, and higher social functions that elephants exhibit. Elephants recognize one another as individuals and often form bonds with “best friends”, and they actually mourn the death of an individual elephant within a heard. This highly evolved social capacity suggests that elephants are much more than just slow, lumbering giants. They’re actually more like slow, lumbering geniuses. Plus, they can paint!


    dolphinMany scientists consider dolphins the smartest non-human creatures on Earth, and some scientists even suggest that dolphins might somehow be even smarter than humans, and this is all for good reason: dolphins are incredibly intelligent. Their brains are huge, and a dolphin’s cerebral cortex (which is responsible for social interactions, abstract thinking, and problem solving) are 40% larger than a human’s. There are only two species on earth that have sex just for the fun of it: dolphins and humans. Because of the dolphin’s incredibly developed social skills, dolphins have the ability to express remorse, guilt, and compassion for other species. There have been thousands of stories featuring empathetic dolphins who helped stranded surfers or led beached whales back to the open ocean simply because it was the right thing to do, and that means that dolphins have a conscience. Then again, dolphins also gang rape each other just for sport, so maybe being super smart isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


    pigsI know what you’re thinking: pigs are filthy, disgusting creatures who eat garbage and crap and roll around in mud and poop all day. How can they be smart? Adaptability, that’s how. Pigs are some of the most adaptable creatures on the entire planet specifically because of their ability to eat almost anything and live in almost any kind of filth and squalor. A pig doesn’t need much of anything to survive. Just give a pig some space to run around and anything to eat, and it’ll figure out a way to make it work. Pigs are great problem solvers, and people who own pigs as pets find them as easy to train as a dog. There’s some kind of pig species in almost every ecosystem on the planet, because when pigs are introduced to a new environment, they quickly learn how to survive, and then how to dominate that environment. They might not be book smart, but you have to be smart to thrive in any environment.


    ratThere’s a reason why scientists use rats in many psychological experiments: the psychological inner-workings of rats are remarkably similar to the psychology of humans. There are over 700 different species of rat on the planet, and they’re all super smart. They have an amazing ability to solve puzzles and mazes (when rewarded with food), and they also frequently exhibit signs of sadness, loss, remorse, excitement, and stress. It’s also believed that rats possess metacognition, which is a trait that only humans and some apes exhibit. Metacognition is the ability to know how you think about things, and then manipulate those thoughts. For example, if you’re trying to solve a math equation, you’ll consciously reference a specific memorized formula that will help you solve the equation. Rats do that, too. They actually tap into old learned experiences and apply that information to current problems. That’s some higher level thinking, but if you think about it, it’s not all that surprising. Rats are one of the most versatile species on the planet. If there were a nuclear war tomorrow, there would still be rats a hundred years from now. You’ve gotta be pretty smart to survive anything.


    pigeonPigeons are the rats of the bird world, so why wouldn’t they be smart and crafty? Pigeons are the only birds that aren’t inherently terrified of humans. Why? Because where there’s humans, there’s food. Any smart bird would quickly recognize that befriending humans, or at least annoying them to the point that they tolerate you, is a good way to stay near a steady food source all the time. Think of it this way: if you were a homeless dude, would you hang out in the middle of the Sahara Desert, or would you live directly behind a grocery store dumpster? A smart homeless guy would take the dumpster any day, and that’s basically what a pigeon is: a smart homeless guy…except it’s a bird.


    squirrelAt first glance, squirrels might seem like silly, fidgety little tree rats, and for all intents and purposes that’s basically what they are. But just like rats, squirrels are dramatically more intelligent than they might seem. Squirrels are really good at finding food, collecting that food, and then stashing it in various locations that they can remember and revisit when food sources dry up during the winter months. In fact, their capacity for remembering various food stash locations is ridiculously developed, to the point that squirrels basically geomap entire regions in their mind, marking the various locations of food stashes. Basically, squirrels have a built in Google Maps with pins dropped at dozens of different food locations. But at some point, the squirrels encountered a problem with their food mapping skills. Other animals caught on to the squirrel’s amazing ability and began to piggyback on the squirrel’s intelligence by following squirrels, watching where they hide their food, and then pillaging the stash after the squirrel had left. So squirrels devised a system to combat this: a good ol’ fashioned psych out. Squirrels knowingly dupe would-be food thieves by setting up fake food stash locations and frequently pretending to deposit food there. It seems that, in the land of the squirrels, the smartest move is a good bluff.


    octopusThe octopus is easily the most creepily intelligent animal on earth. Why is it creepy? Because it’s essentially a slimy wad of goo that’s closely related to snails. There’s absolutely no reason why an octopus should be as smart as it is, and yet time and time again, the octopus has demonstrated a uniquely supreme intellectual prowess. An octopus can easily figure out how to unscrew a jar in a few seconds. It can find its way through a complex maze with relative ease, and when it comes to finding a way inside of a container to get to food, forget about it. Screw-on lids, latches, buttons, turnkey locks, even buckles can easily be managed by an octopus in just a few seconds. No cat burglar on Earth can compete with an octopus. They also score frighteningly well on memory and aptitude tests. There’s even a story of an octopus housed in an aquarium that would sneak out of its tank at night, crawl across the floor, climb into another aquarium to eat the fish, then climb and squirm back into his own aquarium before the staff showed up the next morning. Not bad for a meager Cephalopod.


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