In recent years, the definition of sapience has been changing, from the self awareness of dolphins, to the sign language gorilla koko, to the amazing intelligence of crows; it is becoming increasingly likely that we are not the only sapient species currently alive. with the re-defining of Earth sapience, what species are possible candidates for sapience?

For the sake of avoiding opinion based answers, let's assume that sapience is: Judgement, the ability to decide from two outcomes which will be preferable; Teaching, learning new ideas from specific members of the same species (such as crows in japan using cars to crack walnuts but not british crows); or Learning, make mistakes and adapt to avoid repeating them.

My question differs from this one in that the latter asked what species on earth would next dominate the world after humans, as opposed to me asking what species are candidates for sapience.

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    $\begingroup$ Ants fit your sapience model, so any creature with more brains than an ant is a candidate. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2016 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Renan ants as a whole are a higher intelligence IMHO. But for the record, they learn by instinct not teaching; Crows and humans teach; Bears use instinct. $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Aug 3, 2016 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ Ants teach and learn too. And so do bees. One could probably find anedoctal cases for other invertebrates, not only arthropods, if we look for it. I believe some squid can learn hunting tricks from others, for example. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2016 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Renan again, Tandem running is simply an ant following its instincts regarding pheremone trails $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Aug 3, 2016 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ There are really two lists entangled in this issue: The sapient list, which involves meeting the OP's three criteria and the more important, unnamed list, which contains those creatures who are too wise to let humans know that they are on both lists. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2016 at 18:56

3 Answers 3


I suspect your question is a little broad so I'm going to give an answer that provides support for a few species & not try to answer the entirety of your question.
Based on the criteria you have set for defining sapience:

  • Judgement
  • Teaching
  • Learning

I think we have some good candidates:

  • Canines
    A dog showing impressive Learning & Judgement capabilities (NOTE: the dog segment ends @ about 5m 38s)
    An article showing that dogs teach other dogs behavior (though it could be said that learning by example is different than actually teaching... though this is how most primates learn from other primates as I understand it)
  • Avians (specifically corvids [Crows/Ravens] & parrots )
    Alex the grey parrot (thanks for this one goes to John!)
    (NOTE: The article on crows, in the spot I have linked, seems to refer to Ravens without realizing Ravens & Crows are not the same... thus suggesting that it's possible that there is some evidence that ravens could be more intelligent than crows.)
    General bird intelligence
  • Cetaceans
  • Apes
  • Cephalopods (thanks Lumberjack!)

    NOTE: I'm intentionally leaving out any details but certain apes & cetaceans have been studied & the results fairly well publicized.

Hope that helps

  • $\begingroup$ Good list. May I suggest the humble Octopus for inclusion? $\endgroup$
    – Lumberjack
    Aug 3, 2016 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Add grey parrots to the list, Alex preformed mental tasks on par with higher primates. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_(parrot) $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 1, 2018 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @John ah, I remember hearing about Alex both before and after he died but wasn't sure of the level of intelligence he had been proven to show. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – MER
    Jun 1, 2018 at 20:04

I am going to borrow my answer entirely from one simple test: Does it seem to recognize itself in a mirror (another link)? And the results that are in so far are not many: humans, apes, dolphins, elephants, and magpies.

The test involves putting some form of mark on the animal, such as dying its hair or tying a ribbon on it, and watching to see whether the animal uses the mirror to investigate the mark. Most animals treat their reflection as they would treat another animal. Only those few groups showed any sign of recognizing the reflection as itself. These animals are also already known to be among the highest intelligence.

I argue that this is the perfect test for potential sentience/sapience- recognition of self, even in an abstract sense.

  • $\begingroup$ strong vision doesn't equal intelligence. many animals use different senses to recognize themselves. Ants for example are almost blind, yet they are the smartest insects on earth. $\endgroup$
    – user23754
    Aug 3, 2016 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ The ant question brings up another difficult issue: A naturally self-associating group of ants (a hive) is arguably "smarter" (for some mythical rigorous definition of "smart") than an individual ant, but the same just can't be said of a mob of humans, especially dependent on the task. If you go with this latter assessment, it remains to be seen whether or not a self-organized group of humans can be said to function in a self-aware, "smart" manner, and what such definition of group would be appropriate. $\endgroup$ Oct 2, 2016 at 0:45

A human's method of teaching differs from most in the animal kingdom as it was copied of the Prussians who were using it to brainwash students to go into the army so the school system has little evidence backing it up and better methods have been found that are proven to work better for example

The canine method of letting the children explore and find out what happens when I do this, with the adult supervising to ensure survival this makes the learning experience fun and allows the child to realize that if the parent stops them that is dangerous and they will remember and tell their children. They fit all 3 categories.

Octopuses and Squids don't have a teaching method they are just naturally smart and self taught as most babies are left to live on their own, but it has been shown that self teaching works very well in humans as well. their brain structure is too different to compare because their brains are all throughout their body and their limbs make decisions for themselves. They fit 2/3 categories because they don't teach each other as they have no language

Dolphins teach their children through example due to this being at an early age it is fully implemented into their brains the mothers may teach them tool use or language for them to be taught later on about the social structure and hunting formations. They fit all 3 categories

Ants are extremely different from us as they are an eusocial genus they don't care for young to make sure their genes persevere instead they care for young to make sure the hive continues to exist, and their is biological differences between ants that mate and ants that don't. They think logically for the betterment of the hive, for example when it floods they remove the larvae first as they are the next generation, ants teach other ants how to get from A to B and how to distinguish A from B it is very simple but makes sense as they mainly follow instinct and pheromone trails left by other ants. They fit all 3 categories

There are many others but these seemed to be the ones being talked about here.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd dispute "it has been shown that self teaching works very well in humans as well". When a human child is raised with minimal exposure to other humans (e.g. "raised by wolves"), the end result is usually permanent cognitive impairment, and even then, they usually had at least a couple years of living with humans before they went feral (because younger children die without adult aid). Sure, many are still smarter than the average non-human primate, but it's a far cry from octopodes and squid, which exhibit intelligence with no parental involvement. $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2018 at 2:11

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