8 Of The Best Students In The Animal World

As you head off to school, take a note from some of these brilliant learners, from all corners of the animal kingdom.

Cat: Abyssinian

Intelligence is hard or impossible to measure in most animals, but especially difficult to measure in felines, which are not pack animals and so have little interest in social hierarchies–which means they don’t pay much attention to commands from us. Dogs, on the other hand, have instincts to obey the alpha in their pack–which is often a human. Cats just don’t think this way. But the Abyssinian, one of the oldest known breeds of cat, is noted by much of the cat fancy community as the smartest breed. Abyssinians can’t be trained, exactly, but they will exhibit signs of learning. They can be taught to play fetch–perhaps the only breed of cat that will do this reliably. No studies have been performed to measure the Abyssinian’s intelligence, but anecdotal evidence suggests the Abyssinian is energetic and curious, able to figure out small puzzles (like doorknobs) quickly.

Dog: Border Collie

As we saw after meeting Chaser, the world’s smartest dog, border collies can be frighteningly bright. Stanley Coren ranks them in his book The Intelligence of Dogs as the smartest breed, able to complete a series of cognition tests (learning names of objects, learning new tricks) more reliably than any other breed of dog. Check out our feature on Chaser for more, but as a brief: Chaser has been able to learn over a thousand words, including names of objects and verbs, but also modifiers, like adjectives and adverbs, and prepositions. And she can make inferences and draw conclusions.

Livestock: Pig

Of the most common livestock animals, bred into domesticity for milk or meat or fur, the pig is easily the fastest learner. The pig doesn’t pass the famous mirror self-awareness test, but it can use the mirror to find the location of food that’s out of sight–which might just mean the pig cares more about food than its own reflection. Yet pigs are also incredibly quick learners, perhaps the fastest in the entire animal kingdom. From the NYTimes: “They’ve found that pigs are among the quickest of animals to learn a new routine, and pigs can do a circus’s worth of tricks: jump hoops, bow and stand, spin and make wordlike sounds on command, roll out rugs, herd sheep, close and open cages, play videogames with joysticks, and more.”

Bird: Crow

Crows are noisy, scary-looking bullies, which, in the animal world, usually signals intelligence. The crow is perhaps the best problem-solver of the group, but it’s also a very fast learner. In a recent experiment, crows were found to remember and communicate the faces of individual people who were thought of as a threat. By the end of the experiment, the person who had wronged one crow found himself the enemy of all crows on campus–even though he had interacted with hardly any of them.

Fish: This One Goldfish

Fish are near-impossible to train; their brains work so differently from ours that the typical way you’d train a dog or pig or parrot doesn’t really work. But after years of training, one British man managed to train his goldfish to obey certain basic commands, like nudging a small soccer ball into a goal. Read more about it (and see it in action) here.

Marine Mammal: Bottlenose Dolphin

No surprise here: the bottlenose dolphin is typically thought of as the most intelligent non-human animal after the chimp and bonobo, and the more research we do, the more impressive dolphins become. They’ve been known to teach each other games and tricks, like walking on their tails or blowing bubble rings; they can use tools (dolphins off the coast of Australia learned to keep sponges over their noses to protect themselves from spiny but delicious urchins); they’ve been trained by the navy; they’ve been proven to understand at least some elements of the concept of numbers. However, it’s difficult to measure the dolphin’s intelligence due to its capabilities as a mimic. Is it learning, or copying? Who knows?

Reptile: Monitor Lizard

Monitor lizards, large and sometimes fearsome lizards common throughout Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, aren’t just big and scary: they’re also among the fastest learners in the reptile world. Monitor lizards have been proven to be able to count–not just know which of a group has the highest number of objects, but to know exactly which that number is. (You can read more about that experiment here.)

Non-Human Primate: Bonobo

The common chimpanzee is often held up as the most intelligent non-human primate–well, really, the most intelligent non-human animal–on the planet. But that ignores the brilliance of the common chimp’s close relative: the bonobo. Kanzi is probably the best-known bonobo in the world; now in her early 30s, Kanzi has exhibited the most linguistic abilities of any bonobo in history. Among her accomplishments are mastering Pac-Man, figuring out that toasting marshmallows over a fire is delicious, learning to communicate with both lexigrams and American Sign Language, and attempting to communicate vocally (although this is mostly incomprehensible, as bonobo vocal cords are very different from our own).