Animals Reveal Their Intelligence in Surprising Ways

There are many types of intelligence in the animal kingdom, but human bias might mean we underestimate just how smart many animals are.

Sea Otter 841 frolicking in the water, How do animals demonstrate intelligence

Explainer Science Sentience

Scientists are constantly uncovering new details about the inner lives of animals, especially how creatures think and feel. To this day, animal intelligence is often measured by how it compares to human intelligence. But as we become more aware of the ways in which other species learn and feel, it seems more researchers are beginning to ask a question that is perhaps more appropriate: how do animals demonstrate intelligence?

How Do Animals Demonstrate Intelligence?

Historically, humans have been held up as the “true measure” of intelligence, largely due to our technological advances. However, animals demonstrate intelligence in many ways that may be different from our own.


Attention refers to selective concentration on information or stimuli, without other stimuli causing distraction. Great apes display this ability and can even understand what others are paying attention to. Cows are also shown to selectively pay attention to different stimuli, avoiding those that are negative.

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive bias is defined as an error made by the mind while processing information. That may sound negative, but another way to look at it is the ability to turn input into a constructed reality. It is also a measure of the emotional states of animals and a way to assess animal welfare standards in research and farming. For example, rats are shown to respond to stress with negative cognitive bias, and pigs display more optimism in an enriched environment.


Consciousness refers to awareness or perception of one’s self and surroundings. It includes our thoughts and emotions — and this trait is far from unique to humans. Researchers believe that thousands of species are likely conscious, including cetaceans.


Insight is the capacity to develop a deep understanding of something, or come up with a solution. Researchers have found examples of insightful behavior in mice and pigeons able to determine a path, among other examples in many other animals.


Animals are often described as “voiceless” — but while they do not speak human languages, animals demonstrate the ability to communicate with each other in many ways. 

Elephants use their feet to create seismic vibrations that can reach those far from the herd, traveling further along the ground than calls sent through their air using their trunks. Sperm whales use “click” sounds as a form of communication, and dolphins call each other by name.


Memory is the mind’s ability to retain information over a period of time. While many animals display an impressive memory, this trait is often synonymous with elephants. These large pachyderms can retrace their steps on long migrations and remember individual elephants among hundreds. 


Numeracy refers to the ability to understand and work with numbers. Limited numeracy has been documented in several animals, including newly hatched chickens and some amphibians and fish.


Many animals, like humans,  are scientifically proven to be able to perceive, or be aware of, the world around them — sometimes in ways that humans themselves are not capable of. For example, bats and cetaceans are able to use sonar to find their way in darkness and locate prey.

Reasoning and Problem Solving

Reasoning is a term for thinking in a logical manner. Problem-solving is the process of finding needed solutions. Pigs can solve problems independently, studies show, and the puzzle-solving ability of crows has been compared to reasoning in four-year-old human children.


The concept of sapience is simple but important; it is defined as wisdom and sound judgment. Dolphins are among the many animals believed to be sapient, and their social complexity and tool-use are among the traits often compared to humans.

Spatial Cognition

Spatial cognition involves the way one understands where they are in relation to their environment, and how they use that knowledge. Spatial cognition is observed in cats, cows and many other animals. 

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is described as the ability to understand others by attributing thoughts or mental states to them. Researchers have found that(potentially in addition to  other animals) great apes possess theory of mind, and are able to predict the perception and beliefs of others.

Time Perception

Some animals perceive time differently than others. Researchers have found that time passes faster for small, fast, flying animals, as well as marine predators. The dragonfly’s vision, for example, can see changes at a rate of 300 times per second. By comparison, humans can potentially perceive 65 changes per second.

Tool and Weapon Use

The use of tools and weapons is widely thought of as a human ability, but many animals possess this capacity, too. Crows and nonhuman primates use tools to achieve a goal, as do otters who crack open shells to reach food. Chimpanzees even create spears for use in hunting.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Animal Has the Highest IQ?

Intelligence quotient, commonly referred to as IQ, is typically a measure of intelligence used in humans. Therefore, it is not an accurate measure of intelligence in animals — but that does not mean that animals are not smart. Some of the most intelligent animals in the world are dolphins, ravens, pigs and chimpanzees. 

Which Animals Are Smarter than Humans?

Most researchers do not believe that there is an animal species more intelligent than humans. This may be largely because we measure the intelligence of animals by comparing it to our own cognitive abilities, some of which are not relevant to animals and their environment. 

However, there are many animals widely known to be highly intelligent who have some cognitive abilities also found in humans, such as primates and dolphins.

What Is the Most Intelligent Non-Mammal?

While many of the most intelligent animals in the world are mammals, octopuses often top the list of the smartest non-mammals. As the octopus farming industry begins to emerge around the world, animal advocates and scientists alike are expressing animal welfare concerns.

How Do We Determine an Animal’s Intelligence?

While there is no standard method to measure animal intelligence, researchers have approached this effort in a variety of ways. Some researchers believe that intelligent animals can solve problems, recognize themselves in a mirror, display adaptive behaviors or manipulate their environment.

Studies have shown that there are animals who can rival humans in certain measures of intelligence. Pigs, for example, have outperformed three-year-old children in cognition tests. In one study, chimpanzees beat humans in games requiring memory and strategy.

The Bottom Line

Humans are remarkably intelligent and complex, but this is not unique in the animal kingdom. Many species have cognitive abilities and demonstrate their intelligence in a variety of ways.

As we learn more about other species and how they interact with the natural world, we have an opportunity to rethink how we interact with the many other sentient animals inhabiting the Earth.

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