Even though reptiles aren’t known for their intelligence there’s still plenty of brainpower in those scaly heads.
Okay, maybe not plenty and some reptiles have certainly earned the reputation for being mostly instinct-driven while others are clearly taking in and acting on information about the world around them.
So where do snakes fall in all this and what’s the most intelligent snake?
The King Cobra is typically considered the most intelligent of all snakes. Experienced herpetologists and snake handlers report that the King Cobra interacts with the world with much more purpose than other snakes. Additionally, the King Cobra has shown nesting and hunting behaviors that are unlike other snakes which could suggest additional intelligence.
But let’s take a closer look at what makes the King Cobra smarter than your average snake along with everything else you need to know about the intelligence of snakes.
Intelligence Vs Instinct In Snakes
While both can be impressive, there’s a big difference between intelligence which can drive snakes to learn, and instinct which is simply a hardwired response.
Nature.com offers a more technical distinction when they explain that intelligence is related to behaviors that a snake acquires as part of the “peculiar circumstances of its individual existence.”
Instinct, on the other hand, isn’t acquired at all. It’s a genetic disposition to act a certain way.
By this definition, for a snake to be intelligent we expect them to acquire new or novel behaviors based on novel stimuli.
Sounds fancy, but we just need snakes to learn new things in response to new situations in order to consider them intelligent.
Are Snakes Smart?
Now that we know the difference between intelligence and instinct, the next obvious question is…
Do snakes actually have intelligence and are they considered smart?
Yes, snakes have the ability to acquire new behaviors in response to unique stimuli which we can loosely define as intelligence. While they may not be able to solve complex puzzles like humans and other species, the most intelligent snakes can problem solve and adapt to their environment beyond just an instinctual response.
For a great example of this, check out this video of a King Cobra that’s learned to drink water from a water bottle. It feels like you can see the gears turning when the snake first gets water poured on them as they realize there’s a drinking source available!
Sure, that may not have been the first time Mr. King Cobra drank from a water bottle, and he may even have a real Dasani habit, but it still shows some level of intelligence.
7 Smartest and Most Intelligent Snakes
We know that snakes have some brains but it can be quite difficult to actually study their intelligence…at least when it comes to certain species.
Imagine you’re a herpetologist interested in reptile intelligence- are you more likely to study the cute little green anole or the powerful king cobra that can kill an elephant in a single bite.
I think the answer is obvious and even though both are some of the smartest reptiles on earth, most universities aren’t lining up to fund king cobra intelligence studies. Instead, there are plenty of other smart reptiles that are much easier to study.
Because of that, we have fewer studies to learn from and much of our rankings will be based on evidence from experienced herpetologists, researchers, handlers, and some amateur keepers.
But with the background information out of the way, let’s dive in!
1. King Cobra
We’ve already seen in the video above how the adaptable king cobra can quickly figure out how to drink out of a water bottle!
That alone is a level of intelligence that should earn them a spot on any list of intelligent reptiles. But it will take more than just a water bottle trick to show up at the top of the list!
Like many intelligent reptiles, king cobras are able to recognize their own handler or trainer and react to them.
Additionally, many point to the fact that king cobras guard their nest and eggs as a sign of intelligence but that’s one area where it’s too difficult to really distinguish between instinct and intelligence.
Just as you wouldn’t consider a snake that defends itself from attack to be intelligent, it’s hard for me to accept this as a sign of brainpower. Sure, most reptiles don’t guard their eggs but there just isn’t a clear connection between reptiles that do guard the next and intelligence.
Instead, we’re more focused on the way a king cobra interacts with the world. While we don’t have a study to back it up, watch enough videos or spend enough time with these snakes and you can clearly see their brain working as they size up the world around them.
Even though rattlesnakes may not be as venomous a king cobra, they still aren’t exactly the first choice when it comes to a reptile intelligence study.
But we still know enough about rattlesnakes to be impressed by their brainpower even if it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from instinct.
First, is their ability to rattle in a way that takes the distance of the potential threat into consideration. One study found that the rate of the rattle is determined by not only how far away a threat is but also how quickly that threat is approaching.
By increasing the frequency of the rattle, these snakes can make it seem like they’re closer than they really are.
While that may just be an instinctual response, it does show that the rattlesnake is very much aware of its surroundings in a way that other snakes simply aren’t.
Then there’s the fact that rattlesnakes have a social system that we’re only just now learning to understand. Researchers have found that rattlesnakes will gather together with up to 100 snakes congregating in one place.
They don’t do this to mate or just to stay warm but instead, other researchers note that “There are all sorts of family dynamics and preferential associations or “friendships.” Individuals clearly choose to be with one snake over another.” At first pass, that may not seem like it meets our definition of intelligence. But on closer look, forming friendships most certainly requires a reaction to new stimuli since you’re choosing one rattlesnake companion over another.
While other snakes seem to have more of a social life than many herpetologists once thought, it appears that rattlesnakes take things a few steps further which suggests a higher level of both awareness and intelligence.
3. Reticulated Pythons
There may not be many studies on these amazing snakes but talk to any reticulated python keeper and they’ll tell you that these snakes are clever, inquisitive, and intelligent.
Because of their exceptional size, they hold the record for the longest snake, they’re best for the very experienced herper. When you throw in their keen intelligence and naturally curious nature you can see how important it is for inexperienced keepers to stay away from this beautiful snake!
Again, while there may not be any studies, the general consensus in the snake community is that these snakes are smart and some have even suggested that they’ve trained their reticulated python to come to their call like the braver keeper in the video below:
While I wouldn’t recommend anyone put their face that close to their retic (as they’re commonly called) it does at least show these snakes are aware of their surroundings and responding to stimuli.
4. Boa Constrictor Imperator (BCI)
Similar to the reticulated python, boa constrictor imperators consistently make the list of intelligent and inquisitive snakes according to keeper consensus even if there isn’t a long list of studies to back them up.
Like reticulated pythons, you can expect BCIs to recognize and interact with you along with showing plenty of interest in your activities.
5. Corn Snake
Corn snakes may not be on the tip of every herper’s tongue when it comes to reptile intelligence, but the humble corn snake can most certainly learn and react to new stimuli making them one of the more intelligent snakes. They’re also one of the most handlable snakes which makes them a good choice for intelligence studies.
A study from the University of Rochester tested the corn snake’s spatial intelligence and learning capabilities by placing them in a large black tub where they were exposed to them unpleasant bright lights. Within the tub, researchers placed a small exit point and studied how long it took them to find it.
At first, the corn snakes took over 11 minutes to find the exit!
But with a little training, the corn snakes were able to get down to just 400 seconds with some particularly brainy snakes getting their time down to just 30 seconds.
The ability to take their puzzle-solving time from over 11 minutes to just 30 seconds is a clear indication of learning and the ability to react to new stimuli!
As with the other smarter snakes, you can expect your corn snake to react when you enter the room and while they may not be as inquisitive as BCIs and reticulated pythons, they’re still certainly smart enough to make this list.
6. Burmese Pythons
Burmese pythons aren’t as sharp as their BCI or reticulated relatives but these snakes are still smart enough to learn a routine and react to your presence.
Additionally, studies have shown that these snakes can react to basic operant conditioning where they were taught to press a button to receive a small treat.
Like the other snakes on this list, that shows a level of awareness and adaptability to stimuli (AKA learning) that earns them a spot on this list.
7. Cuban Boas
Last on our list is the Cuban boa. While they aren’t as popular as some of the other snakes on this list, these big boas have shown impressive group hunting behavior- specifically when they’re hunting bats.
These clever Cuban boas will team up to form a “wall of snakes” at the entrance of a cave. This is more effective than a single snake taking up a perch since it eliminates any safe space for the bats to fly.
By doing this, all snakes get more food than they would on their own. You can see these Cuban boas hanging from the ceiling of the cave and catching bats in this video:
This isn’t the same as a laboratory test or study but it still shows a level of adaptability that we typically associate with intelligent species.
Similar to the other snakes on this list, if the Cuban boa is kept as a pet, you can expect them to react to your routine and you as an individual.
What Is The Dumbest Snake In The World?
With more than 3,000 species of snakes in the world, they simply can’t all be winners.
In other words, there have to be some less-than-smart snakes out there too.
So what’s the dumbest snake in the world?
Not much has been done to study the dumbest snakes but the most likely winner is the brahminy blind snake (Indotyphlops braminus). With scales covering its eyes, this snake isn’t able to see anything and as the smallest known snake species, there isn’t much room for a brain.
These factors combined make it hard for the brahminy blind snake to react to much of anything at all. Even though we can’t say for sure what’s going on inside that little snake brain, it’s safe to say that it’s probably not much.
Are Snakes Smarter Than Humans?
Even though I’ve never walked in on one of my snakes doing calculus or contemplating the finer points of modern philosophy that doesn’t mean they aren’t smart.
But are snakes smarter than humans?
Snakes aren’t smarter than humans by any real metric and humans are much more intelligent than even the smartest snake. However, because of their powerful senses and instincts, snakes can sometimes appear more clever than humans in some situations.
How Smart Are Snakes Compared To Other Animals?
We know that snakes have some level of intelligence but how does it compare to other animals?
By just about any intelligence standard, the smartest snake still isn’t as intelligent as most dogs, cats, and intelligent birds. Snakes may be smarter than some lizards but the smartest lizards (like tegus and monitor lizards) still have more brainpower than most snakes.
However comparative intelligence can be difficult to really quantify so keep in mind that in certain scenarios snakes can really shine and appear more intelligent than many other animals. The snakes on this list also have an edge on many less intelligent reptiles like leopard geckos.
Why Aren’t There More Studies About Snake Intelligence?
As we reviewed our list of the smartest snakes you probably noticed that there weren’t a lot of studies focused on snake intelligence.
While rats have had thousands and thousands of studies (lucky them) snakes are typically left out.
There are a handful of reasons for this but let’s look at some big ones.
The Reptilian Brain Has Largely Been Ignored
Because of a specific brain structure, the brain of snakes and other reptiles has largely been written off as simple, uncomplex, and primarily driven by instinct.
So much so that thinking with your “lizard brain” means tapping into your simple or illogical instincts.
But reptiles are different and that doesn’t always mean dumb.
Even though we’re very different from rats and mice, it’s even more difficult for us to relate to non-mammals that see and experience the world very differently from us. As a result, reptile intelligence was considered “known” early on and science kept moving on to other things.
It’s only recently that we’ve seen things like social rattlesnakes and coordinated hunting from boas that’s led us to challenge or traditional views.
Snakes Aren’t The Best Subjects
Keeping reptiles isn’t always easy.
Any novice herper will quickly realize that the needs of a reptile are pretty different from their own.
That makes keeping a large number of snakes for intelligence studies a bit difficult.
On top of that, there’s the danger element and a bite from a snake can be dangerous or deadly. Snakes like the king cobra are known to be intelligent but risking death by finding out just how quickly they can solve a puzzle may not be worth it!
Our Tests Don’t Alway Work For Reptiles
When you give a reptile a test designed for a mammal, you can’t always expect anything to happen.
Where many mammals will run and react to certain sounds, snakes and lizards may freeze. This and many other differences aren’t a sign of more or less intelligence but you’re focused on viewing things from the mammalian perspective it’s hard to realize this.
Overall, snakes need intelligence tests that are designed for them. That can make results a bit less convincing or confusing and often requires more effort.
It’s safe to say that snakes are a lot smarter than most people think.
What are often thought to mindless little predators can clearly react to the world around them, make decisions, and in some cases even pursue something similar to a friendship.
They’re still a world apart from hyper-intelligent creatures like dogs, dolphins, and humans but in the right situation, these smart snakes can really impress.
What do you think? Are you interested in keeping one of these smart snakes?