Reptiles don’t exactly have a stellar reputation when it comes to intelligence.
In fact, the popular phrase “lizard brain” refers to the primitive part of the human brain that’s all about reacting and not thinking.
That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of reptilian intelligence.
But it’s just one of many ways where the Reptilia class (excluding birds) is deeply misunderstood. In reality, there are many reptile species that are highly intelligent, including many that you can keep as pets.
So what are the smartest reptiles?
Monitor lizards, tegus, and giant tortoises top the list as some of the smartest reptiles on the planet with several studies demonstrating their ability to problem solve and remember solutions. Crocodiles, king cobras, and other smaller lizards have also been found to be intelligent.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the smartest reptiles and talk about whether or not you can keep them as pets.
But first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page with what intelligence really means when it comes to reptiles.
How Is Reptile Intelligence Studied?
What does intelligence really mean and what are we saying when we describe a reptile as smart?
In most cases, scientists measure intelligence by putting creatures in situations where they have to solve problems, make decisions and react to certain stimuli. This could be the classic mouse maze or food puzzles like you’d give to your dog or cat.
However, the big problem here is that the majority of these intelligence tests are made with mammals in mind and not our reptile friends.
But what exactly does this mean?
While writing for the New York Times, journalist Emily Anthes explains that “scientists commonly use “aversive stimuli,” such as loud sounds and bright lights, to shape rodent behavior. But reptiles respond to many of these stimuli by freezing, thereby not performing.”
So while a mouse may run or be motivated by a loud sound to solve a puzzle, the default reptile reaction is to stand still. To the inexperienced, this could make the reptile appear dense or dumb but it’s really just part of being a reptile.
Anthes goes on to say that additional problems occur when it comes to understanding how reptiles interact with the world. Some studies may ask reptiles to perform almost impossible or at least unnatural tasks like using their legs to interact with objects the same way a mouse, cat, dog or another mammal might.
This all leads to reptiles being set up for failure when it comes to intelligence tests and a big part of why these animals have been mislabeled as dumb.
However, things are changing and reptiles are getting more appropriate tests that show off their powerful brains.
We’ll focus on these studies to rank the most brainy reptiles but we’ll also use some anecdotal evidence as well.
Additionally, brain size can act as a proxy for intelligence, and animals with larger brains (relative to the overall size of their body) are usually more intelligent.
This is true of the octopus, dolphin, human and more.
And it’s also, generally, true of reptiles as well with monitor lizards, tegus, and the little green anole all having impressive brain size to body ratios in the reptile world.
So without definitive tests, we can also lean into anatomy to get a better idea of which reptiles may have the most impressive brainpower.
7 Most Intelligent Reptiles
With the background information out of the way, let’s dive into the list!
This list is roughly ordered by intelligence with the smartest reptiles towards the top.
1. Monitor Lizard
Monitor lizards come in a wide range of sizes from the powerful and legendary Komodo Dragon to the much smaller Ackie monitor lizard (which is one of the more handlable monitor lizards as well.)
Regardless of their size, these lizards are smart!
One study of the rock monitor lizard, conducted in the San Diego Zoo, found that these reptiles could count up to 6 snails and were quick to notice whenever a snail was missing.
Monitor lizards are also well known for reacting and interacting with their owners, handlers, or anyone else around them.
These are some stories of Nile monitors using coordinated hunting strategies to secure valuable eggs or even turning their bodies into barriers that lure fish into more shallow areas.
However, these haven’t been seen across multiple monitor species but does go to show just how smart these lizards can be.
Monitor lizards are also one of the few reptiles to actively use their front legs to interact with the world around them.
Some monitor lizards will use this to solve food puzzles that were meant for dogs but even more impressive is the monitor lizard that was trained to raise his arm when he wanted to get out of his enclosure.
You can see this smart lizard action and an explanation of how it was done in this excellent YouTube video:
In other words, monitor lizards aren’t just “living rocks” and are well known for interacting with the world around them which can make them an enjoyable pet for the experienced herper.
However, because monitors can be so intelligent, they typically need a larger enclosure than you might expect and certainly larger compared to less intelligent reptiles. Keep this in mind before you go out and find a monitor lizard.
Another big lizard, the Tegus are famous for their high intelligence and dog-like personality.
While these big lizards aren’t going to wag their giant tails when you come home, they are smart enough to recognize you as a familiar person and most captive tegus enjoy playing (especially with shoes).
Both of these traits are a sign of reptile intelligence as it takes a certain level of smarts to recognize those around you and even more brainpower to enjoy playing.
I can certainly tell you that my little leopard gecko doesn’t seem to know the difference between me and rock!
The Argentine tegu is the most well known when it comes to intelligence and target training is not only easy to do with these very food motivated lizards but also extremely useful when it comes to keeping them.
Check the video below to see how this YouTuber has trained his Argentine Tegu to associate an orange target with a meal so that he can disassociate you from meals. Separating you from a meal means your tegu is more handlable and doesn’t need a food tribute before you enter their enclosure!
Even more impressive, and just as practical, is the ability for tegus to be house trained!
That’s certainly not something that most folks would attribute to a reptile and a sign that these reptiles aren’t just living rocks.
Heck, I know plenty of Chihuahuas that can’t seem to get the hang of house training!
You can see a handsome Argentine tegu saunter out of his enclosure, take a potty break and then head back into his home in this video:
I don’t think anyone can say that this big lizard doesn’t have some brainpower!
However, these lizards aren’t just brainy- they’re also very powerful. The Argentine tegu can grow to roughly 5 feet in length and their powerful jaws can cause major damage. That makes these a poor choice of pet for all but the most experienced keeper.
3. Giant Tortoises
It can be easy to discredit the intelligence of a creature that moves this slow but that just gives the giant tortoise plenty of time to think!
The most well-known of the bunch is the Galapagos Tortoise which are named after the famous island.
Not only are these reptiles smart, but they also have an average life span of longer than 100 years which one individual tortoise living to 175 years old!
But their cousin the Aldabra giant tortoise can live just as long and in some cases even longer.
When it comes to brain power, both species have shown impressive intelligence. One study trained a mix of both species of tortoise to chomp on colored balls attached to sticks.
If the tortoise bit the correctly colored ball, they would receive a treat. But if they chomped on the colored ball, they got nothing. The tortoises quickly learned to target the correctly colored ball out of three different colors.
But what’s even more interesting, is that the tortoises were able to remember how to complete this task long after they were initially trained.
Researchers returned to perform the same test after 95 days and found that all the tortoises were able to bite the correct ball without any hints, reminders, or help.
They then came back 9 years later and once again all tortoises remembered which colored ball to bite for the treat. No mistakes, no hints, and no retraining required.
Now that’s impressive! This powerful memory has led some scientists to refer to the tortoise as the elephant of the reptile world which is quite the compliment!
When you combine relatively high intelligence, an astounding lifespan, and an impeccable memory, it’s hard not to imagine what’s going on inside the mind of a giant tortoise.
Sure, they probably aren’t coming up with ways to communicate across galaxies or solving the mystery of life but they still have decades of experiences and memories up there!
Keeping the endangered Galapagos tortoise as a pet is illegal in most places and while it’s possible to find an Aldabra giant tortoise they can be difficult to maintain since they can grow to over 300 pounds.
Instead, the Sulcata Tortoise is still quite large at around 90 pounds but much easier to maintain. They may not have the same intelligence studies that the Galapagos and Aldabra do, but they’re still sharp!
Crocodiles are not only shockingly smart but also extremely dangerous which takes us firmly into Jurassic Park territory.
While diving into the research on this, I certainly had a few “They can open doors…” type moments.
To start with, crocodiles have been observed working together as coordinated teams during hunts. One study, which collected thousands of observations from both amateur and professional naturalists, observed crocodiles swimming in progressively smaller circles around a school of fish.
As the circles got smaller, the clump of fish became more concentrated and the organized crocodiles would take turns swimming through the clump of fish to get a meal.
In another case, three crocodiles were observed working together to ambush a pig. One crocodile started by scaring the pig down a trail towards a lagoon where two other crocodiles were waiting.
There’s a reason crocodiles have been around for more than 85 million years!
But their impressive intelligence doesn’t end there.
Crocodiles have also been found to climb trees where they can not only sunbathe but also keep a lookout for any potential threats.
While it might sound difficult for a crocodile to escape from a tree if they did see a threat, crocs will strategically position themselves so that they can simply flip off the tree and fall into the water where they can escape.
As if that wasn’t already amazing enough, crocodiles have also been observed using tools to hunt even more efficiently. Crocodiles will place branches on their snout to not only blend into their environment but also lure in birds. Birds are attracted to the branches as a place to land but also as a tool for building their nest.
You can see a crocodile using this technique in the quick video:
Crocodiles are also one of the few reptiles that can roar which means they have a high range of vocalizations than most other herps too. Even though you can’t keep a crocodile as a pet, their impressive intelligence still means that they deserve a spot on any list of the smartest reptiles.
5. Green Anole
The little green anole is much smaller than any other reptile on this list but these tiny 3-inch lizards still have impressive brains.
A 2011 Duke University study tested the little anole using the same challenge that they present birds. They presented the anoles with small wooden containers with loose caps. Some of these containers held worms and others were empty.
They tested how quickly the anoles could figure out how to remove the caps from the wooden containers to access the worms. Amazingly, researchers found that “The lizards solved the problem in three fewer attempts than birds need to flip the correct cap and pass the test.”
Researchers took things a step further by using a specific color for wooden containers that contain worms and another for those that don’t. Anoles quickly figured this out and were able to accurately target the correct wooden container for their wormy treat just based on the color.
Researchers then switched colors so the previously correct cap now lead to an empty container. In other words, they were trying to trick the little anole!
The brainy anoles figured this out after only a few attempts and then began to correctly associate the correct (and new) color with the worm treat!
Learning is one thing, but the ability to adapt and unlearn is even more impressive and a clear sign of a brainy reptile.
That puts the unassuming little green anole on the same level as many birds that are considered to be excellent problem solvers. It’s not just their brains that make these lizards stand out and anoles are also interesting for their ability to change colors and detach their tail in order to escape predators.
These little lizards are common across many parts of the world and growing up in Florida, it seems like I didn’t go a day without seeing a green anole running around.
While they can make good pets, they’re unfortunately presented as easier to take care of than they really are.
They can make a good starting pet but their small size and husbandry requirements don’t make them a good fit for children despite what many pet stores will lead you to believe.
6. King Cobra
King cobras are widely considered the smartest snake but because of their extremely powerful venom, they aren’t commonly used in reptile intelligence studies.
When you consider that a single bite from a King Cobra delivers enough to kill 20 humans or a single elephant…it should be no surprise that researchers instead decide to study the cute little green anole instead!
As a result, we’re mostly left with anecdotal evidence regarding the king cobra’s intelligence.
Handlers consistently report that the king cobra looks and interacts with them differently from other snakes.
While most snakes will simply react on an instinctual level to whatever is around them, king cobras seem to take stock of the world around them see the world in a different way.
This includes recognizing their handlers, a common trait for all the intelligent reptiles on this list. This isn’t a behavior that’s regularly seen in other snakes, at least not in the same way that it’s seen in king cobras.
While that may not sound impressive compared to other reptiles on this list (especially when compared to the house-trained tegu) but it does earn the king cobra the title of the smartest snake.
7. North American Wood Turtle
The giant reptiles on this list have plenty of room for a powerful and big brain but most smaller turtles don’t.
Smaller brains usually lead to less intelligence but despite a small head and tiny brain, studies have suggested that the humble wood turtle has a comparable intelligence level to rats in some areas.
Specifically around basic problem solving related to location, movement, and mazes. These little turtles were placed in a variety of mazes and displayed similar performance to rats when it came to solving them.
Their ability to intelligently navigate the world around them was further studied when turtles were displaced roughly 1.5 miles from their usual location.
While it took several weeks (they are turtles after all) they were able to return to their origination location which may demonstrate more of a homing ability than pure intelligence.
Still, similar to their much larger relatives, the wood turtle also showed an exceptional memory and the ability to solve the same mazes years after they first learned them.
You can see a little wood turtle show off his skills in this video:
These turtles are able to interact and navigate the world that’s unlike most other reptiles which earn them a spot on this list.
Wood turtles can also make a good pet and are easy enough for most keepers to handle.
Honorable Mention: Red Bellied Cooters
Lastly, we have the red bellied cooter but we can also include their close relatives like the red eared slider and many other water turtles.
You aren’t going to potty train these turtles or teach them any advanced tricks but researchers at the University of Tennesse were able to train 9 red bellied cooters to retrieve pellets from a small puzzle.
I know, that may not be groundbreaking but these same turtles were able to solve the same puzzle with little to no retraining 2 years later.
That’s a combination of intelligence and memory that’s far from standard in the reptile world.
Are you surprised at just how smart some of these reptiles are?
I’m willing to bet that you didn’t expect to see a potty-trained tegu when you started this article!
What do you think? Are you looking for a smarter reptile now?