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What is the smartest lizard?

Rock monitor

The rock monitor (Varanus albigularis) is a species of monitor lizard in the family Varanidae. The species is endemic to Central, East, and southern Africa. It is the second-longest lizard found on the continent, and the heaviest-bodied; locally, it is called leguaan or likkewaan.

Taxonomy [ edit ]

First described by François Marie Daudin in 1802, [2] V. albigularis has been classified as a subspecies of V. exanthematicus, [5] but has since been declared a distinct species based upon differences in hemipenal morphology. [6] The generic name Varanus is derived from the Arabic word waral ورل, which is translated to English as «monitor». The specific name albigularis comes from a compound of two Latin words: albus meaning «white» and gula meaning «throat».

The subspecies of V. albigularis are:

  • White-throated monitor, V. a. albigularis
  • Angolan white-throated monitor, V. a. angolensis
  • Eastern white-throated monitor, V. a. microstictus
  • Black-throated monitor, V. a. ionidesi[4] (but may be synonymous with V. a. microstictus)

Description [ edit ]

Varanus albigularis is the heaviest-bodied lizard in Africa, as adult males average about 6 to 8 kg (13 to 18 lb) and females weigh from 3.2 to 5 kg (7.1 to 11.0 lb). [7] [8] [9] Large mature males can attain 15 to 17 kg (33 to 37 lb). [10] It is the second longest African lizard after the Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus). Varanus albigularis reaches 2 meters (6 ft 7 in) in total length (including tail), with its tail and body being of equal size. [11] However, they rarely exceed 100-150cm in many areas. [12] Mature specimens more typically will measure 0.85 to 1.5 meters (2 ft 9 in to 4 ft 11 in). [8] [10] The head and neck are the same length, and are distinct from each other. [13] The bulbous, convex snout gives an angular, box-like appearance. The forked tongue is pink or bluish, [13] and the body scales are usually a mottled gray-brown with yellowish or white markings. [13]

Geographic range and habitat [ edit ]

V. albigularis is found in Central Africa (Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaire), Southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, Republic of South Africa, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Angola), the African Great Lakes (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania), and the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia). [13] V. albigularis is found in a variety of dry habitats, including steppes, prairies, and savannahs, but is absent from desert interiors, rainforests, and thick scrub forests. [13]

Diet [ edit ]

V. albigularis are generalists, feeding opportunistically on a broad variety of prey in the wild, such as other lizards, amphibians, birds, snakes, tortoises, eggs and small mammals. [14] [15] Tortoises make up a significant part of their diet, and are swallowed whole due to the hard shell. Otherwise, this species consumes very little vertebrate prey, eating primarily invertebrates, especially millipedes, beetles, molluscs, orthopterans and scorpions. [16] Millipedes for example form nearly a quarter of their diet; the monitors are apparently resistant to its poisonous secretions. They are not averse to occasionally scavenging the corpses of vertebrate prey, even those as large as vervet monkeys, which are sometimes torn to pieces by «death rolling» like a crocodilian prior to consumption. [17] Live vertebrate prey other than tortoises are usually too fast to catch for these monitors, and therefore form very little of their diet. [18] This contrasts with what is often a diet of mostly vertebrates in captivity, such as rodents, poultry or fish. [19]

Predator [ edit ]

Natural predators of adult rock monitors include martial eagles and leopard. [20] [21]

Intelligence [ edit ]

An intelligent lizard, several specimens of V. albigularis have demonstrated the ability to count as high as six in an experiment conducted by Dr. John Philips at the San Diego Zoo in 1999. [22] Philips offered varying numbers of snails, and the monitors were able to distinguish numbers whenever one was missing. [23] [24]

Folklore [ edit ]

People living with the HIV/AIDS virus in Yumbe District of Uganda have been reported injecting themselves with the blood of rock monitors, which they believe to be a cure for the virus. [25] Many are reportedly discontinuing anti-retroviral therapy to pursue this anecdotal treatment. [25]

As a result, V. albigularis is reported to have become an expensive item in the Ugandan black market, selling for more than 175 US$ each. [25]

3 Most Intelligent Reptiles That Could Outsmart Your Cat or Dog…

Most intelligent reptiles

Reptiles are not just “living rocks” as some people call them. Their cognitive powers are still being studied and continue to surprise researchers, caregivers, and those that train them.

In order to understand intelligence in reptiles, we need to look at what that means…

In humans, intelligence may mean being able to solve a complex math equation, or knowing when to walk away from a dangerous situation.

And while reptiles were never going to develop the Chaos Theory or dabble in quantum physics, they do have the capacity to learn, grow, and adapt from their experiences. This is the very basis for operant conditioning, the most common way to train animals.

Every living creature learns by operant conditioning . Cues are taken from our environment and whether they were positive or negative will determine how likely they are to be repeated.

The trainability of animals depends largely on their ability to remember and learn from their experiences.

So, which reptiles top the list of MOST intelligent? Keep reading to find out!

In This Article

Most Intelligent Reptile #1: Giant Tortoises

Most intelligent reptiles giant tortoise

The giant tortoise, of which there are many variants, are truly fascinating creatures. They weigh about 700 lbs and can live over 100 years, making them the longest-living vertebrate.

They originate in the Galapagos Islands and around the Western Indian Ocean.

A new study came out in 2019, that showed how these tortoises can be trained and the results were quite impressive.

The study was conducted in two different locations, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna. The only difference between the two, was that at one they were trained in groups and the other individually.

Two types of tortoises (Galapagos and Aldabra) were taught to bite on a ball of a specific color: blue, green or yellow.

When they came back to the activity three months later, they were still able to remember it and complete it.

It was repeated an impressive nine years later and the tortoises once again remembered and bit the appropriate ball!

The tortoises that were taught in groups actually learned faster than the ones that were taught individually, showing how they learn through observation.

This study demonstrates that tortoises are able to differentiate between colors, learning through operant conditioning, and hold an experience in their memories for years.

While you can’t own a giant tortoise as a pet, there ARE other amazing beginner-friendly pet tortoise options available.

Quite different from a study done in the 17 th century where a Aldabra tortoise’s brain was entirely removed and the tortoise lived for six months leaving researchers to assume that tortoises had limited cognitive function.

Most Intelligent Reptile #2: Monitor Lizards

most intelligent reptiles monitor lizard

The monitor lizard is native to Oceania, Africa and Asia, but is also found in the Americas where it is an invasive species.

Species range in size from under one foot to 10 feet, the largest of which being the Komodo Dragon.

A study done at the San Diego Zoo using Savannah Monitors found they could actually count!

They fed the monitors snails in separate chambers, conditioning them to expect a certain amount of snail in each chamber.

If the monitor was expecting four snails in a chamber, but found only three, they would search for the other snail even though the next four snails were available.

The study determined they could count up to six snails, but any larger quantities were considered a batch and they would eat them without counting.

Additionally, Monitor lizards are also trained at zoos, like the London Zoo, to target objects. This allows handlers to get them into positions for easier handling and observation in order to maintain their health and safety.

Next to Monitor lizards, the Caiman Lizard is also a very smart reptile.

Most Intelligent Reptile #3: Crocodiles

Smartest reptiles saltwater crocodile

Crocodiles are such large, powerful creatures that zoos and other people who handle them have worked hard to find out better ways of managing their behavior in order to keep both themselves and the crocodiles safe.

And through this behavior management it has been discovered just how much crocodiles will respond to operant conditioning.

In captivity, crocodiles have been trained, or conditioned, to respond to their name, touch a target, and station – where the crocodile is told where to go and must stay there during training.

Additionally, because crocodiles are able to see color their training tools are specific to each animal.

In the wild, saltwater crocodiles talk to each other using four different calls. Using these calls, young crocodiles can swiftly warn of danger or call for help much like that of a dolphin or a killer whale.

And while it was previously believed that crocs typically climbed trees to enjoy some good ‘ol fashioned Vitamin D, a new study is suggesting otherwise…

It is now believed that they also climb trees to use the height as a vantage point to survey their neighborhood and look for threats.

Yet, one of the smartest things that wild crocodiles do is perhaps also the scariest.

They have been observed baiting their prey by balancing sticks on their noses and remaining motionless for hours. When a bird tries to grab the stick it finds itself victim to the crocodile’s powerful jaws.

By the way, do you know the difference between crocodiles and alligators (and that they are evolutionarily further apart than cats and dogs)?

⭐️Fun Fact: Did you know that Saltwater Crocodiles are actually the largest living reptiles in the world? It’s true! The average adult male can measure up to 23 feet long and weigh well over 2,000 pounds!

Wrapping Up Most Intelligent Reptiles

Reptiles were previously thought to have limited cogitative capacity because they are so different from mammalian creatures. They were not considered as trainable as a dog, cat, horse, or dolphin, so it was determined they just weren’t smart.

However, reptile keepers are realizing that it’s not that the animals aren’t smart, it’s that their instincts are different and their brains are unique.

In some training situations, they may become startled and freeze which is not ideal for training. In comparison, in the same scenario a mammal may be more easily maneuvered into a favorable position.

In reality, both wild and captive reptiles have intelligence, which is demonstrated in their adaptability to an environment and their conditioning.

This means that pet reptile owners can use operant conditioning methods to train their pet, but they will need a heavy dose of patience and creativity to communicate with their reptile.

Repeatedly using cause and effective (ex. desired behavior equals treat reward) may get your reptile exactly where you want him.

Are Reptiles Intelligent? (Top 7 Intelligent Reptiles)

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.

Snapping Turtle

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

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.

Emerald Anole

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.

Frill-Neck Lizard

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.

King Cobra

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.

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