Part of a series on speculative biology

Champion speciators
Development of intelligence
Intelligence on Earth
Offense and defense
Speculative bioenergetics
Speculative biomechanics
Speculative physiology

Also see: Intelligence, Development of intelligence

The hypothetical rise of intelligence is of great interest in speculative biology projects, not only among alien beings, but also here on Earth, where there already are a number of species that could, one day, develop greater and greater cognitive capabilities.

As established here, evolution of intelligence has five main requisites:

  • a complex nervous system (possibly not necessary for genetic sentience);
  • an energy-rich metabolism that supports said nervous system (best with high-energy food);
  • manipulator organs to hold and use tools;
  • a social organization with extensive brood care (necessary for culture, non intelligence per se);
  • an incentive to complex thinking (changing environment, hard-to-obtain food, strategic socialization, etc.).

See here a related discussion on the forum.


Mammals have some features that give them an advantage on other animal groups when it comes to intelligence: their metabolism is much faster than in every other group besides birds, they have a well developed brain, and their reproduction is based on a strong physical bond between mother and offspring, which makes easier the transmission of acquired knowledge through generations.


  • Manipulators: grasping hands with opposable thumbs, prehensile tail in some species.
  • Feeding habits: omnivorous, almost continuous search of small quantities of food.
  • Society: very complex groups with (usually male) hierarchies and political alliances.
  • Typical EQ: 1.5 - 2.5

Of course, primates have very advanced cognitive abilities, especially apes: these include an extensive use of tools, complex comunication (mostly based on voice), traces of metacognition, a well-developed empathy and a remarkable ability in mind theory, which allows them to take part in a complex social structure with subtle political games of rivalries and alliances (except for orangutans, which are mostly solitary but not less intelligent). The most studied species among primates is the common chimpanzee, able to manipulate a wide range of tools - including rocks, sticks, branches, leaves - and to learn a great number of words to communicate through written pictograms (see here). Primates' prehensile hands are among the best manipulating organs in the animal kingdom. All the great apes, though, are highly endangered, and they probably won't produce other sapient species in the future.


  • Manipulators: none (dolphins hold objects with the snout).
  • Feeding habits: active aquatic hunters (toothed whales) or carnivorous filterers (baleen whales).
  • Society[1]: solitary (most baleen whales) to small family groups; extensive offspring care.
  • Typical EQ: 0.5 - 2.5

Cetaceans notoriously include the living species with the second highest EQ after man - the bottlenose dolphin, with an astonishing EQ of 5.9. The cetacean brain has also a thick and rich neocortex, and in some of the larger dolphin species can weigh several kilograms. Their language, mostly based on high-frequency sounds that in some cases can travel for thousands of kilometres, can be very complex and culturally diversified (different populations of the same species "speak" different dialects). Baleen whales, living on an abundant and passive foodsource (krill and plankton) tend to be less intelligent than toothed whales, that actively hunt fish and seabirds.

Dolphins use specific calls as proper nouns, and take part both in highly coordinated hunt and in complex playing behaviours, such as producing bubble vortexes; though often violent and aggressive with other sea mammals or even other dolphins, they have a well-developed sense of empathy and they're able to recognise themselves in a mirror. Their largest fault with regard to intelligence is the lack of specialized manipulation organs, which greatly hinders tool-using abilities.


  • Manipulators: a single boneless trunk, dexterous and versatile.
  • Feeding habits: constant browsing of low-energy leaves, grasses and bark.
  • Society: small matriarchal groups with calves, solitary males.
  • Typical EQ: 1.5 - 2.5

The brain of an adult elephant can weigh up to 5 kg and has an extensive neocortex. Elephants are able to express a wide range of emotions and go through a particularly long childhood (up to 10 years long), which allows the effective teaching of learnt skills. Especially well-developed abilities include memory (they appear to suffer from PTSD), self-consciousness and empathy: the elephant brain, like the primate brains, contains a great number of mirror neurons (the brain cells that fire both when an individual performs an action and when it sees it performed by someone else, easing the identification between self and others); they also seem to have simple mathematical skills. Finally, elephants are the only non-human animals that maintain ritual behaviours associated with death. The muscular trunk is a good manipulation organ, though less versatile than a pair of hands.


  • Manipulators: none (can only hold objects with the mouth).
  • Feeding habits: Primarily carnivorous, a few species (i.e. foxes) will eat plants.
  • Society: usually large packs, often territorial, with a hierarchical structure, complex communication.
  • Typical EQ: 1.0 - 1.5

Dogs, and most of their close relatives, are by nature pack animals, and they have an extensive understanding of hierarchies and mutual obligations, something that could help developing the mind theory. They can easily be taught many specific and complex behaviours, though they often need to have an innate disposition, and they appear to be able to interpret human facial expressions. Still, most of these skills are a product of domestication, and they all partake in social behaviour, with little regard for problem solving. Wolves are not as responsive to study as dogs, but they seem to have a remarkable ability in connecting events (for example, recognising humans approaching from the noise of vehicles). Cooperative pack hunting of large preys stimulates simple strategic thought, which in turn can be a powerful source of cognitive development.


  • Manipulators: can hold small objects with the paws.
  • Feeding habits: usually omnivorous, mostly plant matter, occasionally hunt.
  • Society: mostly solitary, sometimes small groups of unrelated young individuals.
  • Typical EQ: 1.0 - 1.5

Different bear species have a surprisingly high EQ, sometimes comparable to that of a monkey. Besides their great sensorial acuity, they have great navigational and food-finding skills and display a remarkable curiosity, on par with primates - the interest in exploring is a necessary step towards possible sapience. Their lifestyle is partially similar to that of apes, except for their solitary leanings. The largest bears, such as the grizzly and the polar bear, are not as smart as the smaller ones, while the giant panda - besides being endangered - feeds on plant matter extremely poor in energy. The best contestants for greater intelligence are the medium-sized, omnivorous species, especially the black bear (Ursus americanus): that seems to be able to distinguish different numbers.         


  • Manipulators: none.
  • Feeding habits: carnivorous, usually hunt of small aquatic animals.
  • Society: large undifferentiated groups, play behaviour.
  • Typical EQ: 1.0 - 1.5

Seals, walruses and sealions are other animals with a remarkably high EQ, perhaps outcome of their active hunting lifestyle. The California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) Rio showed the ability to classify object in abstract categories, associating different pictures of animals according to similarity, or by the trasitivity (if A→B and B→C, then A→C): these primitive logical skill is a prerequisite, and possibly a precursor, to true language; and also an excellent memory, remembering the categories after ten years. In a less stunning way, walruses can learn their calls to other individuals and modify them according to responses. Like cetaceans, however, Pinnipeds do not have manipulator organs, though many species still retain distinct fingers which could possibly be readapted for manipulation.


  • Manipulators: grasping semi-prehensile hands.
  • Feeding habits: omnivorous, mostly plants and small prey.
  • Society: sometimes small groups of unrelated males or females, otherwise solitary.
  • Typical EQ: 1.0

Most studies on raccoon intelligence are over a century old, so they might not be very reliable today. According to a 1907 study, found them to be much more apt to problem-solving (specifically, escaping from puzzle-boxes) than cats or dogs, even on par with monkeys. Raccoons display a great curiosity about their environment and forage in a similar way to small primates; if they developed a more complex social structure they could get very close to monkeys in their behaviour.


  • Manipulators: None (can only hold objects in their mouths)
  • Feeding Habits: Primarily carnivorous, may occasionally eat plants
  • Society: Highly organized packs with a hierarchical structure, complex communication
  • Typical EQ: 1.0-1.5

Unlike the other Carnivores discussed here, hyenas belong to the suborder Feliformia (dogs, bears, raccoons, and seals all belong to the suborder Caniformia). Like dogs, however, they are extremely efficient pack hunters with a sophisticated social structure, and this has encouraged the evolution of a large and complex brain. Hyenas have been known to use trial and error when presented with a puzzle, as well as caclulating whether to withdraw from a fight with a rival pack based on their numbers. As with canids, they lack manipulators other than their jaws, but their extremely social nature allows them to cooperate in handling objects.


  • Manipulators: none.
  • Feeding habits: extremely omnivorous, mostly rooting in vegetation, rarely scavengers.
  • Society: matriarchal groups with common breeding, strong hierarchies from birth.
  • Typical EQ: 1.0

Wild pigs also have some features in common with primates: they form groups where each individual needs to keep track of others, and they forage often on a variety of foods. Though they don't recognise themselves in a mirror, they are able to use said mirror to find food hidden behind them, provided that they already was taught its workings. Pigs have a good memory, especially for food sources, and they can easily be trained. Their greatest drawback to evolving further intelligence is that they lack manipulation organs, though it's been suggested that their sensitive snout could evolve in an elephant-like trunk with the right selective pressure (for example, to strip branches of their leaves).


Birds have a metabolic activity similar to that of mammals (and sometimes even higher) and their neurons are more densely packed in the brain, allowing them to rival large mammals in intelligence with much smaller bodies. Some groups, including corvids and parrots, also show extensive offspring care, a prerequisite (and perhaps a cause?) to the development of a culture.


  • Manipulators: none specialized (they can hold tools with the beak and the feet).
  • Feeding habits: usually omnivorous, mostly small preys and plants.
  • Society: some solitary; some live in organized groups with a strong hierarchy; cooperative offspring care.
  • Typical EQ: 2.5

Most corvid species (crows, jays, ravens, magpies) have an EQ on par with elephants, great apes and dolphins, and their body-to-brain ratio is even higher than in humans (see the second table here). Crows, and especially the New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides), are exceptionally innovative, being able to manipulate materials never seen before, use tools to safely examine potentially dangerous objects, and even using tools to obtain other tools. Newborn corvids are raised for a long period of time by different adults: this allows for an effective transmission of culture and learnt behaviours. Their greatest hindrance is, yet again, the lack of specialized manipulation organs, though the beak is somewhat useful to this end and the feet can also handle objects to some extent.


  • Manipulators: none specialized (they can hold tools with the beak and the feet).
  • Feeding habits: mostly herbivorous (seeds, fruit, nectar), rarely small preys.
  • Society: some solitary, some live in large flocks; prolonged offspring care.
  • Typical EQ: 2.5

Parrots have very similar to corvids regarding intelligence: several species have to practice it often for social interaction, and they display complex playing behaviour. The kea (Nestor notabilis) and the grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) are especially curious and clever. In an experiment that compared keas with New Caledonian crows by allowing them to solve a puzzle in different ways, both with and without tools, keas experimented more freely with unfamiliar materials, and often solved the puzzle sooner than the crows, though they didn't show the same skill with the tools they used. The grey parrot is, notably, the only animal besides humans known to be able to use words in a meaningful way as opposed to merely repeating them. The grey parrot Alex was successfully taught to use words to identify, count and describe objects, correctly answering questions such as "How many red squares?". Having a short and curved beak, parrots cannot wield object with the same precision crows have, but they make up for this with their prehensile, dextrous feet, which crows do not possess. 


Reptiles are not usually seen as intelligent as birds or mammals: they have a much lower metabolism and consumption of energy and rarely look after their offspring after they hatch or emerge from the body of the female. While no living reptile has specialized manipulation organs and none are known to use tools, some of them have prehensile tails (adaptations to live among the trees), while chameleons have feet with opposable toes. Still, there are many reptile species that manage to match and even outdo endothermic vertebrates in many areas, much due to the complexity of their brains, which rival the mammalian neocortex and the avian nidocortex. The Puerto Rican emerald anoles (Anolis evermanni) are able to solve new problems (reach food hidden under plastic covers), remember the solution for future use and adapt their techniques in different conditions (even faster than most birds and mammals). Tegus (Tupinambis sp.), large South American lizards, also show similar skills when they interact with humans; they have the largest brains of the reptilian world in terms of absolute mass, show cooperation and distinct personalities to each individual they are approached by.

Monitor lizards

  • Manipulators: a prehensile tail in arboreal species.
  • Feeding habits: carnivorous (any animal smaller than them), three described species, Varanus bitatawa, Varanus mabitang and Varanus olivaceus, are known to be frugivorous as well.
  • Society: mostly solitary; sometimes cooperative hunting; a small degree of offspring care.
  • Typical EQ: 4.0

With an EQ exceeding those of almost all birds and mammals, these large lizards are among the most intelligent reptiles and among the smartest of all animals. Monitor lizards are able to, among other things, count up to six, distinguish distinct quantities and show engagement in play as well as a high level of reasoning, abstract thinking and self-recognition. Nile monitors (Varanus niloticus) have been observed hunting cooperatively, with one acting as a decoy to lure a crocodile away from her nest and then both return to feast on the eggs; Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) can recognize different people; Varanus albigularis can quickly learn to obtain food from problem apparatuses.

Tegu lizards

  • Manipulators: a prehensile tail, powerful claws with a considerable degree of mobility and angulation and a decent amount of dexterity.
  • Feeding habits: mostly carnivorous, with a few species being omnivorous.
  • Society: sometimes gather in groups and work as a group; a certain degree of offspring care.
  • Typical EQ: 4.0

Another group of reptiles that show particularly high intelligence are the tegu lizards. They are the equivalent in South America to the monitor lizards found in Asia, Africa and Australia and have evolved a similar degree of intellect to their counterparts, if not somewhat higher. Tegu lizards have distinct personalities and know how to cooperate effectively in pairs and larger groups and use their skills to reach food where other animals cannot, where one animal acts as a decoy to distract the prey while the other(s) surprises the victim. In par with most of the smartest mammals and birds, a tegu displays a high level of reasoning, self-recognition and abstract thinking, something relatively rare in the animal kingdom.


  • Manipulators: agile limbs and a somewhat dexterous and prehensile tail.
  • Feeding habits: carnivorous, feeding on insects and other smaller animals.
  • Society: sometimes gather in groups to breed and socialize as well as to cooperate in abnormal tasks.
  • Typical EQ: 4.0

In their areas of occurrence, anoles have, at times, been taken to surmount tests of cognition and have done surprisingly well, outdoing birds and mammals in both efficiency and time. They are also fast learners and swiftly adapt to sudden changes at the experiments, revealing the true extent of their intellect. Anoles, much like monitors and tegus, rank among the most intelligent animals, easily exceeding most mammals and birds, and demonstrate self-recognition, a high level of reasoning and abstract thinking. They are also able to cooperate with others of their species for a common end if needed. Also, uncommon for an animal, they display uncanny curiosity and are watchful and alert of the unknown.


Although these aquatic vertebrates are not usually seen as owners of great intelligence due to being an ancient lineage and having a primitive likeness, some fish have tremendous amounts of intellect reflected at their unusual metabolic rates. Freshwater elephantfish, manta rays and sharks have far more advanced brains than any would think of such creatures and some can even be compared to amniotes (reptiles, birds and mammals), which outsmart most other species. Unlike them, however, they owe as much of their skills to their keen senses as to brain power.


  • Manipulators: An extendable, elongated and flexible set of jaw sections covered with taste and touch sensors.
  • Feeding habits: Carnivorous, feed on small invertebrates.
  • Society: Live in shoals and schools for protection and attention; hunt individually due to little difficulty to capture prey.
  • Typical EQ: 1.0

The Mormyridae family, also called elephantfish, contains fish that are quite unusual. Their brain-to-body ratio is one of the largest of any animal (1:33), substantially higher than that of humans (1:50). With 3% of the body mass being brain, mormyrids have sharp senses and an acute sensitivity to electric charges as well as having the ability to communicate with other species via electricity. In addition, they have the ability to differentiate numbers, cooperate and specialized organs for touch and taste for a better reconnaissance of the environment, forming a mental map of the area to increase safety and become aware to food availablilty.


  • Manipulators: No specialized organs; a mouth filled with quickly replaceable teeth.
  • Feeding habits: Carnivorous, feed on different prey depending on the lifestyle and sort of teeth.
  • Society: Mostly solitary; sometimes gather in congregations to exploit vast sources of food.
  • Typical EQ: 1.0

Some of the apex predators in the seas and considered as such mainly due to their strength and attitude, sharks belong to the superorder Selachimorpha and also have their fair share of intellect to rule the oceans. These fish are not as brutish as they look; their brain-to-body ratio is comparable to some mammals, like marsupials. Some species have strong problem-solving skills and the ability to cooperate with tasks such as dragging the carcass of a large animal to deeper waters to feed with less chance of external competition. Their keen senses also provide them much information on the waterscape and the ability to sense the world in visible light as well as in electric and magnetic ways.


Close relatives of sharks and usually seen as more passive, docile and serene, rays are strong swimmers that exist on most large water bodies on Earth and are part of a relatively recent superorder of cartilaginous fish called Batoidea. These fish have a highly hydrodynamic design and essentially fly through the water with their wing-like pectoral fins. They have high metabolism like some sharks and they are considered to be partially warm-blooded. They are curious and playful animals and spend much of the time exploiting the habitat and familiarizing themselves with the area. They can also solve problems and guide themselves and each other to position themselves the best way possible to capture hard-to-catch prey.

  • Manipulators: No specialized organs and no secondary structures used for manipulation; a stinger on most species used for defense.
  • Feeding habits: Mostly carnivorous, feed indiscriminately on most small marine animals; manta rays eat only plankton.
  • Society: Live in small groups and stay together for warmth, protection and foraging.
  • Typical EQ: 1.5


  • Manipulators: several dexterous prehensile tentacles and arms.
  • Feeding habits: carnivorous (small preys on the seabottom).
  • Society: usually solitary; some squids live in groups or shoals; no offspring care.
  • Typical EQ: 1.5

Cephalopods (members of the class of mollusks that comprises octopuses, squids and cuttlefish) are surprisingly intelligent, more than any other invertebrate: they have a mostly gangliar nervous system, but the main ganglia form a sort of central brain with very thick nervous fibres. Different species of squids, all active hunters, communicate effectively by rapidly changing colour, and the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) takes advantage of this ability to coordinate pack hunting. Octopuses manipulate a variety of tools with their boneless arms (among the best manipulating organs in the animal kingdom): they can protect themselves with mollusks' and coconut shells, unscrew jars, pick up pebbles for future use (thus showing capacity of pianification).

Anyway, cephalopod intelligence seems to be very different from vertebrate intelligence. They show a lack of physiological emotional responses that would be unnatural for a vertebrate, and two thirds of an octopus' neurons are in its arms, making them partially independent from the brain. Furthermore, all cephalopods have a very brief lifespan: octopuses live alone, and they usually die right after reproducing, without tending to their offspring. When they do breed more than once, they live no more than five years.


Like cephalopods, arthropods have a gangliar nervous system, which limits greatly their chances to develop intelligence. Their body plan, based on an external skeleton with periodic moults and respiratory tracheae that directly connect the tissues with the outside, prevents them to become as big as vertebrates: the largest arthropod on Earth, the japanese spider crab, weighs up to 19 kg, while the largest land arthropod, the coconut crab, only weighs about 4 kg. In the Paleozoic era, when the air was richer in oxygen, the largest arthropods were the millipede-like Arthropleura on land and the sea-scorpion Jaekelopterus in the sea, both estimated to weigh up to 180 kg.

Jumping spiders

  • Manipulators: none.
  • Feeding habits: active hunters, often baiting their prey.
  • Society: completely solitary.
  • Typical EQ: 0.5

Spiders have concentrated part of their nervous system frontally, forming a sort of brain. Though they're usually ambush predators, the jumping spiders  have adoptet a lifestyle as active hunters, and they coordinate their movements through a brain that reaches the 2% of the body mass (the same as ours). Those who hunt other spiders, such as Portia, can lure them by mimicking the movements of a prey trapped in the net; while their basic tactics are probably built on instinctive behaviours, Portia is believed to build upon these a learnt hunting strategy through trial-and-error.

Swarm intelligence

Decentralized, self-organizing systems can produce swarm intelligence, a emergent collective behaviour that allows to the group to "intelligently" interact with the environment, simply thanks to the interaction of a large number of members which act in a local and, to a certain extent, random way. In a way, individual intelligence is the swarm intelligence of many (in themselves unkthinking) neurons.

The features of collective intelligence are described here, as are those of a hypothetical "genetic sentience". On Earth, such a form of intelligence can be observed in swarming insects, schooling fish, flocking birds and herding mammals. When moving to a new nest, honeybees can collectively act on the information discovered by scouting individuals; travelling ant swarms choose the briefest path, singnaled with a self-renforcing trail of pheromons; bees, paper wasps, ants and termites build large and complex nests, sometimes with regular geometry, simply because the independent actions of each individual follow those of the others (stigmergy).

Not only swarms of social insects displar remarkable abilities of spatial orientation and problem-solving, but they also show traces of cultural lore: when the paths followed by ants around a nest are erased by winter, old ants remember them the following year and guide to younger ants, without having to discover anew the trails. Leaf-cutter ants even practice a simple form of agriculture, tending fungi that they feed with chewed leaves and protect from parasites.

Even slime molds, fungus-like colonies of single-celled protists, despite not having a nervous system at all and being able to sense the environment only through basic chemical cues, are surprisingly able to guide themselves through labyrinths, remembering past events and even predicting them. In an experiment in Japan (2010), the slime mold Physarum polycephalum was placed in a Petri plate with corn flakes arranged like the Tokyo subway stops (and flashing signals as obstacles). In 26 hours, extending tendrils and reabsorbing the less efficient ones, it reconstructed the subway map.

Examples in speculative biology

  • This discussion on the forum presents some intentionally unlikely sapients descended from terran animals, both as future evolution and alternate evolution, including sapient turtles, slugs, clams, horses and snakes.
  • A dicussion about alternate sapient sloths.
  • Ornosapien, future sapient descendant of parrots.