What makes an animal intelligent?

What is intelligence? are Animals intelligent?

The word intelligence comes from the Latin adjective "intelligent" and means "insightful“ „sensible". The surprising thing is that there is no general definition of intelligence. Rather, the intelligence is one Interplay of skillsto perceive something and process it in the brain. They are also called cognitive skills (we explain the term in more detail at the end of the article).

Big brain = high intelligence?

It's not that easy. In this case, elephants and whales with their huge brains would be many times smarter than us humans. The size ratio of brain to body is also not decisive for intelligence. The shrew's brain makes up 10% of the body mass, in humans it is only 2%. Nevertheless, she is no smarter than us humans. Currently, researchers believe that intelligence depends on:

- the Processing speed of information in combination with
- the Storage capacity the nerve networks

Think about your computer: if it can store tons of pictures and music songs, but for some reason takes 10 minutes to open a program - how useful is it? Exactly the other way around: If your computer opens programs super quickly but can only save 5 images, that is just as unhelpful. So a mix of both is important.

Intelligence in the Animal Kingdom - Photo: Lobke Peers / Shutterstock

How do you find out if animals are intelligent?

The question of whether animals are intelligent has been preoccupying biologists and researchers for many years. To find out, they give the animals puzzles, offer them tools or observe their behavior in certain situations.

• Brain Teasers

For example, intelligence includes solving brain teasers. In a brain teaser, something is "acted out" in the head before it is put into practice. It's like playing chess, when a player decides which move to make next.

• Tools

Using and making tools is another skill that requires intelligence. Anyone who uses objects as aids must understand the connection between their own body, the object and the situation and be able to use the right combination.

• Behaviors

Certain behaviors are also called intelligent. For example, when one living being deceives another in order to take away its food. Only those who put themselves in their shoes and can analyze and judge their behavior are able to deceive someone. Great apes, ravens and dolphins in particular are capable of such masterpieces.

Chimpanzee Eats Healthy Leaves - Photo: Robbie Taylor / Shutterstock

Finally, we will explain a few terms that are often used in connection with intelligence:


• Where does the word come from?

Cognition (in Latin “cognitio”) means something like “knowing” and “knowing”. In the Duden, cognition is paraphrased as follows: "The entirety of all processes (= procedures) that are related to perception and recognition".

• Examples of cognitive processes

When you study for school, you are very consciously aware of information, for example because you are reading a textbook and learning about math or geography there. Everyone perceives differently. It also depends on how attentive / focused you are. But there are also anatomical reasons. For example, a blind person cannot perceive his environment with his eyes. Memory is also one of the cognitive skills. For example, some have incredible memories, others have trouble remembering something.


Meta comes from the Greek means something like "at the same time with", "together with". Metacognition is an extension of the term cognition and stands for thinking about one's own perceptions / insights. For example, when at the end of a class you think about what you have learned and wonder whether you have understood everything.