Few things are as underrated as reptile intelligence. When we think of reptiles, what prominently come to mind are the scales, the webbed feet, and their cold-blooded nature — but not brains. But do you know that some reptiles are no less smart than your most intelligent pets?
Reptiles like monitor lizards, king cobra, crocodiles, and snapping turtles display impressive intelligence levels. The monitor lizard is smart enough to count snails when feeding. A hunting king cobra meticulously studies its prey for the most vulnerable point to inject its venom. More than discerning colors, crocodiles communicate among themselves, displaying intelligence.
There is even more to know relating to how smart reptiles are. Are reptiles trainable? How big are their brains? Also, compared to fishes, are reptiles more intelligent?
These are some of the exciting questions this article answers. But before we dig into that, let us learn about some of the most intelligent reptiles alive.
Top 7 Intelligent Reptiles
The Monitor Lizard
The Monitor Lizard inarguably counts among the smartest reptiles in existence. Belonging to the Varanidae family of lizards (which feed on flesh), monitor lizards weigh over 22lbs and are often longer than a meter.
The monitor lizard displays its intelligence in several exciting ways. A monitor lizard is smart enough to figure out the location of insects in logs.
Leveraging their forelimbs, monitor lizards can take mentally coordinated actions to pull such insects out.
Some monitor lizards display unique personalities, typical of smart creatures. Species like the Komodo dragon can even distinguish their human trainers when they see them among other people.
The snapping turtle is another smart guy that deserves its place on this list. The snapping turtle’s brilliance is commonly seen in its aptness for mischief.
This is a really cunning creature when it comes to escaping captivity. The snapping turtle can smartly maximize the slightest loophole in captivity to escape.
It is not rare to find your snapping turtle patiently digging through the mud (say in pond enclosures). They can also carefully climb over high barriers, something only smart animals can put up.
A snapping turtle can almost instantaneously recognize its food container. And even when they can’t see you, snapping turtles can discern from the sound when you pour food into their containers.
Galapagos tortoises display admirable cognitive capacities not commonly seen in reptiles. They have remarkable memory and are relatively easy to train.
A group of researchers in Vienna and Jerusalem trained a pack of Galapagos to identify a ball by its color. These giant tortoises performed really well in selecting the right ball color when instructed to.
Was this a fluke? Definitely not!
The trainers found that the Galapagos tortoises in the experiment retained these skills sustainably.
More specifically, when these trained tortoises were called upon in nine years to pick the ball with a designated color, they executed the instructions accurately, choosing the right colored ball.
Concise communication is rated as one of the hallmarks of intelligence in animals, and emerald anoles display good communication skills.
This is seen in how the emerald anoles transmit messages among themselves using the dewlap.
The dewlap is a throat fan (distinctively red) and is usually extended when a male emerald woos a prospective mate.
The dewlap can also be extended in scuffles to show aggression or transmit warnings of imminent danger to emerald anoles around.
The frill-neck lizard is a master of disguise.
First, when it encounters a possible predator, the frill-neck lizard tends to deceptively exaggerate its size to scare off the predator.
It achieves this by opening and expanding its frill to make it closely resemble a scary dinosaur.
This collared neck is achievable thanks to lighter skin around the lizard’s neck (with an increased surface area) than the remaining body.
Well, this disguise doesn’t work all the time. Not always!
When the intruder is not frightened by such a move, the frill-neck lizard smartly stands on its hind legs (like humans would) and bursts into a fierce sprint.
This could be charging bravely at the intruder or running off to safety.
Thanks to its high intelligence, the king cobra boasts incredible hunting efficiency.
This is a pretty studious reptile. Before attacking prey, the king cobra takes its time to analyze its prey meticulously.
Consequently, the king cobra determines the most susceptible point in its prey where it can administer its venom for maximum destabilizing effect.
With this smart approach, the King Cobra is a far deadlier hunter than the lots of snakes that hunt with instincts or with hurried reactions to their prey.
What is more, the King Cobra can recognize you if you have handled it for a while. Only smart animals have this capacity.
What if we told you crocodiles are as smart as dogs?
Yes, they trink in instructions and are more open to training, just like dogs. Crocodiles, if appropriately conditioned, can respond to names you assign them.
Furthermore, a properly trained croc can even go where you signal it to go or fetch items you direct it to!
Aside from crocs in captivity, wild crocodiles (say in saltwater) communicate with themselves. They call themselves.
Newborn crocs can make distinct sounds to call their mothers, and crocodiles can easily warn their peers of impending danger.
Are Reptiles Trainable?
There is no general rule when it comes to the trainability of reptiles. In most cases, it depends on the unique reptile in question and its species.
For example, snake species like the saw-scaled viper are wild, whereas species like the corn snakes are mellow.
Some reptiles are very accommodating to training and physical interaction. Some would readily digest and execute instructions in exchange for you lovingly scratching their neck.
A reptile that is not shy will be open to you touching it and interacting with it, provided you reward it with food.
Other reptiles could be outrightly aggressive and unwelcoming to you handling them.
In all, you should be extremely careful when handling dangerous reptiles. You can’t definitively predict them, no matter how gentle and tame they may appear.
Do Reptiles Have Small Brains?
There is no gold standard for the brain sizes of reptiles. It varies across the reptile species.
Reptiles like snakes have small brains when compared to relatively bigger-sized (brain) species like lizards and turtles.
Except for birds, crocodiles have the largest brains in the reptilian world.
Are Reptiles Smarter than Fishes?
We have sufficiently articulated the intelligence of reptiles. But we can’t accurately measure them against fishes.
Fishes are, in their own rights, intelligent. Researchers from Macquarie University have found commendable cognitive capabilities in fishes.
In some cases, fishes demonstrate even higher intelligence than non-human primates.
Among vertebrates, fishes number among those with the highest brain weights. The latter is a strong indicator of intelligence.