Frogs don’t always get a lot of attention in the world of herpetoculture and are often overshadowed by their reptile relatives.
Whether that’s in terms of size, power, or even intelligence frogs don’t always get much attention. Sure, reptiles are bigger and stronger but are they really smarter too?
Are frogs smart or intelligent?
The average frog doesn’t appear to be very smart but most can learn basic targeting (with enough patience) which puts them above many species in the animal world. Additionally, some frogs (like the Dendrobates auratus) seem to have an exceptional ability for mapping and memorizing their environment which suggests some level of intelligence or awareness.
Still, there’s a lot we don’t know about frog intelligence and the frog brain hasn’t received much attention.
That’s the quick answer but let’s take a closer look at the complex subject of frog intelligence along with some of the smartest frogs around.
Let’s get started!
Understanding The Difference Between Instinct and Intelligence
Before we can understand the brainpower of any animal, whether that’s a super smart king cobra or a simple tree frog we need to make sure we’re making a distinction between instinct and real intelligence- something that isn’t always so easy.
Instincts are hardwired tendencies that frogs have to do certain things. That can include actions like finding the perfect position to capture prey or knowing exactly where to find a mate based on sound alone. These things are impressive but they’re more easily explained by instinct than smarts.
On the other hand, when we look for signs of intelligence scientists are looking for “a subject’s self-control, self-awareness, and memory. These abilities are integral to processing information and making rational choices—intelligence in its most generalized form.”
Philip Sopher, when writing for The Atlantic, explains that one of the most popular methods for assessing intelligence is the use of a pointing or targeting test where the animal is trained to expect food in a certain place. They’ll further test the animal by changing the location of the food and seeing how quickly the animal reacts to the change. Frogs aren’t so great at the switch-up portion but they can absolutely be trained to expect food in specific locations.
So when it comes to figuring out if instinct or intelligence is the explanation for a certain behavior, ask yourself if that behavior is unique to the frog’s specific situation or something that any other frog of that species would be expected to do.
So, How Smart Are Frogs?
Now that we know more about how to make the distinction between intelligence and instincts, we can take a closer look at the brainpower behind a frog.
But unfortunately, most of the information we have about frog intelligence comes from anecdotes and stories rather than established studies. While no species that fall under the herpetoculture umbrella gets much attention from scientists when it comes to intelligence frogs barely get any and most of the attention has been given to a few super smart reptiles.
We do know that frogs can target and that tells us a lot about their brainpower. It’s a slow process but you can check out the video below for an example of frogs learning to jump on a platform in order to earn the reward of crickets. The frogs first learn to target the stick but one clever frog learns to associate the click with a meal specifically which absolutely meets our definition of intelligence.
Check it out:
Where frogs fall short is when you start to switch up the location or stimulus. This is something that’s difficult for many species to do but even the little green anole can get the hang of it with only a few tries.
Most frogs, however, can’t.
But where frogs do stand out is in terms of mapping locations and spatial awareness. Writings from as far back as the 1700s have documented how a transported frog can find its way back even over long distances. Modern scientific studies have come to the same conclusions with the green and black poison dart frog (Dendrobates auratus) getting extra attention for their ability to map complex territory over long distances.
Additionally, several studies have documented a frog’s ability to make auditory distinctions between friendly and foreign frogs. Frogs would show less aggression when they heard a familiar neighbor and much higher aggression when a previously unknown frog came close.
Again, this is quite hard to separate completely from instinct but it does tell us that frogs are taking in detailed information from their environment which is more than we can say for many other species.
Can Frogs Recognize Their Owner?
When people talk about the intelligence of reptiles or other herps, they often bring up whether or not a particular species can recognize its owner.
So where do frogs fall on this? Can frogs recognize their owner?
Most frogs won’t do much to acknowledge their owner but some will learn to associate you with food and come to the front of their enclosure. If you’re the only one providing food, it’s possible that they recognize certain things about you (like your voice or smell) and appear to recognize you over other people.
We know that frogs have a keen sense of smell and hearing. So much so that they can recognize the voice of other frogs and while it’s a bit of a stretch to think that they apply this to people we do know that frogs are taking in enough information that they could make a distinction between people.
Just like the frogs in the video above were taught to jump on a platform, some frogs could be conditions to you specifically.
But don’t get your hopes up. Some frogs, like the Pacman frog, are one step above a walking stomach and will be quick to chomp your finger if they even get a hint of food.
What Is The Most Intelligent Frog?
Frogs may not be the brainiest bunch, but there are still some frogs that are smarter than others.
So what’s the most intelligent or smartest frog?
Based on the available science it appears that the green and black poison dart frog (Dendrobates auratus) is the smartest frog thanks to its ability to create complex mental maps of its environment which requires a high level of awareness of environmental cues and locations.
While many frogs have homing abilities, there aren’t many that appear to match the ability of the green and black poison dart frog.
Still, frogs are often overlooked when it comes to studies so it’s very difficult to say for sure.
How Smart Are Toads?
So far we’ve gone into detail on frogs but what about their toad relatives?
How smart are toads?
Toads can learn to respond to both positive and negative stimuli but they’re by no means considered smart. Like frogs, many toads have a powerful homing ability and while it’s hard to say how much of that ability relies only on instinct, it does suggest some awareness of their surroundings which could require some intelligence.
Overall, it would be very hard to consider toads smart unless you’re comparing them to simpler and smaller brained creatures.
3 Smartest Frogs and Toads
With the background information out of the way, let’s take a closer look at some of the smartest frogs around. With such limited information, this was not an easy list to make but each of these frogs has shown some level of possible intelligence.
1. Green and Black Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates auratus)
This little frog’s claim to fame is its ability to create a complex mental map of its environment.
But not just any environment. Specifically, the complex and rapidly changing rainforests that it calls home.
This frog lays eggs on the ground and when they’re ready to hatch finds the eggs across several locations and brings them to specific areas with enough water for the eggs to hatch into tadpoles. That may sound simple at first, but as researchers explain, this way beyond a simple homing ability and requires a keen awareness of its surroundings in order to create such a mental map.
The mapping ability of these little frogs was further tested in a modified maze. When placed in the traditional maze, these little frogs simply attached themselves to the wall and refused to move. But when the maze was modified with water to be frog-friendly scientists found that the frogs “did, in fact, search for their escape in a manner consistent with using a mental map of their surroundings.” In other words, frogs used their previous experience in the maze to more quickly solve subsequent trips into the maze which suggest some level of learning and intelligence.
We don’t know if other poison dart frogs can make mental maps to the same degree so for now, Dendrobates auratus will claim the top spot.
2. North American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
While the North American bullfrog seems to have their own basic homing ability, these frogs have earned a spot on this list for a different reason: these frogs are able to make a subtle auditory distinction between the vocalization of a friendly or unfamiliar frog in their territory.
Using fake bullfrog calls, scientists found that these frogs would respond with different levels of aggression depending not only on the familiarity of the other “frog” making the call but also their location. When unfamiliar frogs moved around and called from another location, the level of aggression would increase. Not only does that suggest a powerful ability to make distinctions between sounds but also the ability to identify the location of those sounds in relation to where they’re usually found.
That’s a lot of brainpower and while instinct is certainly a part of this process it doesn’t appear to be the only factor at play.
3. American Toad (Bufo americanus)
Last on our list is another member of the order Anura with a powerful homing ability and the winner of the smartest toad. Again, it’s very difficult to say how much of its ability relies on pure instinct and how much of this homing ability requires intelligence but it’s still enough to make our list!
The American toad was included in a study that tested their ability to find their way back after being moved an amazing 235 miles away. Researchers made things even harder by blindfolding the frogs and then removing their ability to smell and the toads were still able to find their way back.
While impressive, that may be a stronger argument in favor of instinct instead of intelligence since it doesn’t seem that these toads are using senses (at least not the ones we have) to find their way back.
Still, this impressive homing ability has earned them a spot on this list.
Why Aren’t Frogs and Toads Included In More Intelligence Studies?
While there are thousands (if not millions) of studies that have analyzed the brainpower of rats and other smaller mammals, frogs have largely been left out.
First, scientists have historically turned their attention to brains that are well known to be complex and the assumption is that the brain of a chimpanzee has more to teach us than the brain of a frog. However, that’s not really true and studies of frogs have frequently provided surprising insights like this study that lead to a better understanding of the parenting drive in our own brains.
Second, is the issue that traditional tests aren’t made for amphibians or reptiles in mind. Put a frog in a maze and they’ll likely just sit there whereas a mouse or rat will eagerly explore. That doesn’t make the frog dumb but it does make them harder to study using traditional techniques.
Studies have to be purposely made for frogs and other amphibians which takes a lot more time and money that scientists don’t always have.
Even though frogs aren’t thought of as intellectual powerhouses, which is a fair assessment, they’re definitely smarter than most people give them credit for and can even be trained with enough patience on your part.
But that’s only what we know so far and there’s a whole lot that we don’t know about the frog brain since they’ve been primarily overlooked by science.
What do you think? Do you think your frog is smarter than average?