Imagine living in the late-Cretaceous and being the target of a hungry dinosaur. It’s bad enough that a fearsome predator is after you. Because of its big size, it could outrun you, and its teeth are deadly. If you have a bit of luck, you can hide and evade the predator or even confuse it so you can get away.
But what if that predator was a smart dinosaur hunter, with some intelligence. Could it outsmart you, and how would it use its intelligence for hunting? Depending on that answer, is the difference between escaping this hungry dinosaur or the alternative of becoming a tasty snack.
So, what are the smartest dinosaur species that could outsmart prey? The smartest dinosaurs are Troodontids, a group of bird-like dinosaurs that comparatively had a large brain to body-size ratio. Their brain is closer to modern-day birds than reptiles. Other smart hunter predators are Compsognathus (also bird-like), Dromaeosaurids (that include Velociraptor), and smart apex hunters such as T. Rex, Spinosaurus, Allosaurus, and Giganotosaurus.
Research regarding a dinosaur’s brain size and its effect on intelligence is still ongoing, so the way I’ll address intelligence for this article is based on a dinosaur’s hunting prowess. It makes sense that dinosaurs would use what intelligence they had to help them be better hunters and predators.
Expect to read about how paleontologists and paleo-brain specialists identify a dinosaur’s intelligence, what are Troodontids (and what happened to Troodon – the dinosaur most commonly cited as “the smartest dinosaur” and lists and comparisons of apex predators that hunted with intelligence.
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Were There Any Intelligent Dinosaurs? Are Velociraptors the Smartest Dinosaur
Measuring intelligence is not an easy thing to measure. When it comes to dinosaurs, given the fact they are extinct gives an added difficulty in measuring how smart a dinosaur was.
Paleontologists have been using brain size measurements, but even this has difficulties as fossilized skulls are not always complete. As brain tissue is soft, they cannot always determine how big a dinosaur’s brain was even if they have a complete fossilized skull.
Modern technology has helped, for instance, to make CT scans on the skulls and the brain cavity to determine brain capacity. However, there is still so much that is unknown from a fossilized skull.
Dinosaur Smarts – How Can They Measure Dinosaur Intelligence?
Paleontologists use Encephalization Quotient (EQ) to determine an animal’s intelligence. It is a measurement of an animal’s brain size relative to its body weight, and the correlation suggests that an animal with a larger brain can have a higher intelligence level. (Source)
Although there are many other factors to consider in measuring intelligence like habitat, behavior, and other biological functions, the EQ gives some guide to dinosaur intelligence.
Paleontologists had worked with this method since the 1970s when it was first proposed for mammals. J.A. Hopson, a University of Chicago paleontologist, took this research one step further and applied it to dinosaurs. (Source)
J.A. Hopson took the estimated brain and weight estimates of different dinosaurs, flying reptiles, reptiles (crocodiles), and made comparisons and indicative conclusions. Among these were that Troodontids had the highest EQ and Sauropods had the lowest.
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Since then, there have been multiple studies on groups of dinosaur fossils and individual species to estimate the intelligence of dinosaurs. There is work to try and compare them to modern-day birds and reptiles.
In the table below, I list several different dinosaurs in the first column. Then in the second column, I list the EQ range, and then lastly, I rank their smartness on a scale of 1-10 in the third column.
Which Dinosaurs Were Hunters?
Theropod dinosaurs are considered carnivores or meat-eaters, which means most of them were hunters. Not all of them were carnivores, but most of them were. A small percentage (1%-2%) of them were omnivores, dinosaurs that ate both plants and meat.
Additionally, paleontologists think that some dinosaurs were scavengers, eating the dead corpses of prey killed and partially eaten by carnivores. These carnivorous dinosaurs have large, strong jaws, sharp teeth, deadly claws, which is why theropods are the apex (or top) predators of their time.
It would be awesome to turn back time and observe how dinosaurs hunt, to see if they used different techniques and intelligence. The good thing is paleontologists found ways to determine a dinosaur’s diet by studying the jaws and teeth of fossilized dinosaur bones.
By determining the habitat where dinosaurs lived and the types of dinosaur fossils found in a certain area, scientists can also piece together a snapshot of which dinosaurs were predators.
It can also give info about which prey were most likely hunted and what teeth marks were on those dinosaurs’ bones that were hunted. In this way, we can know more about carnivores and what dinosaurs they hunted.
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What Makes a Dinosaur Predator a Good Hunter?
Scientists know from observing other carnivores such as modern-day mammals and birds, that these animals use a combination of intelligence and physical advantages to hunting prey.
Paleontologists have studied and documented fossils from the Mesozoic Era and have determined some of these physical advantages that apex predators such as T. Rex and Allosaurus used. (Source)
The physical advantages and intelligence that dinosaur predators most likely used to hunt are:
● Nose– ability to smell
● Ears – the ability to hear well
● Physical agility – speed, quick movement, flexibility
● Communication – with other dinosaurs if hunting in a pack
● Intelligence during the hunt – for instance, trapping or cornering prey
● Claws – grapple and slash and also in combination with biting
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Which Dinosaur Was the Smartest Hunter?
Now let’s match what is known about a dinosaur’s EQ with the discussed physical advantages of what a good hunter has. Suppose we list the EQ ranges for certain dinosaur groups, focusing on carnivore hunters. In that case, we can start to get a picture of which smart dinosaur predators would be dangerous when hunting prey.
Dinosaur Predators That Were Dangerous and Smart
The Spinosaurus, also known as a Spine Lizard, is the largest animal-eating dinosaur. It is larger than Giganotosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, with an estimated mass of 12,000-20,000 kilograms or 13-22 tons.
In 2014, researchers led by National Geographic Explorer Nizar Ibrahim argued that it is the first semi-aquatic dinosaur. 4 years after that, a fossilized tail was found, leading to the confirmation of it being one.
Spinosaurus had a jaw similar to that of a crocodile and had straight and conical teeth indicating fish consumption, including sawfish, large lungfish, and even sharks. This semi-aquatic dinosaur uses its tail to thrust and power through the water with ease.
The size of this dinosaur’s body and brain puts it as 1.9 on the EQ chart as it is a theropod Carnosaur as it’s skull and body were so large. When it comes to hunting, this dinosaur could hunt in water and on land. With all of these traits, the Spinosaurus counts as a terrifying dinosaur and hunter. (Source)
Insert Table – Table of Smart Dinosaur Hunters
Giganotosaurus or also known as the Giant Southern Lizard, is one of the largest meat-eating dinosaurs that was slightly larger than T-Rex and a bit smaller than Spinosaurus. Giganotosaurus was a predator but is also considered to have scavenged when the opportunity presented itself. Scientists believe that Sauropods were its main hunting target.
Its fossils have been found in what is now Argentina and lived during the Cretaceous period. Giganotosaurus was a carcharodontosaurid, which had an EQ from 1-1.9 and was a carnosaur on that scale and it probably was in the upper part closer to 1.9. It is considered to be the top predator in South America during the Cretaceous.
As for its hunting ability, its teeth give paleontologists ideas about what kind of predator it was. Giganotosaurus’ teeth are sharp, thin, and shark-like, thus not designed for crushing bones; instead, this opportunistic dinosaur uses its serrated teeth to slice until its prey bleeds to death.
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The Jurassic period apex predator was Allosaurus. This dinosaur lived mostly in North America, and its fossils have been found in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and other western states. One specimen has also been discovered in Portugal.
Allosaurus is the most well-known of the predatory dinosaurs that lived with Stegosaurus and other armored dinosaurs in the Jurassic period. As an apex predator, it was considered to have hunted sauropods and armored herbivore dinosaurs and ones with weapons like horns.
If we take a look at the EQ of Allosaurus, this dinosaur was a Carnosaur. Because its evolution was earlier than, for instance, Giganotosaurus and T. Rex (both of which lived during the Cretaceous period), it’s likely that Allosaurus had an EQ between 1.0-1.6. This indicates that Allosaurus was an intelligent dinosaur and dangerous hunter.
Tyrannosaurus Rex, king of the tyrant lizards, is arguably the most popular dinosaur and infamous for its size and teeth. Originally, the T. Rex was not considered too intelligent, said only to have a brain the size of a walnut.
As we have discovered more fossils and even a nearly complete T. Rex named Sue (if you are interested to learn more about Sue the T. Rex, see my article on this website – 7 Surprising Facts About Sue The Dinosaur- Most Complete T-Rex Fossil), our understanding of this predator increases. In its full-size adult stage, the T. Rex is an efficient killing machine and can easily crush its prey’s bones.
According to a book published by the University of Edinburgh, paleontologist Steve Brusatte wrote that a T. Rex was more than a giant brute – it was smart as a chimpanzee. In terms of its EQ, like Giganotosaurus and Allosaurus, the T. Rex is a carnosaur. Paleontologists put T. Rex at the high-end scale of the carnosaurs, at 1.9.
The T. Rex, which has one of the biggest skulls, had a keen sense of smell, you can see the size of the nostrils on the T. Rex skulls, acute vision, and excellent hearing. It also had long, sharp teeth, with a bite force three times that of a great shark, thus subdue struggling prey.
This dinosaur hunted sauropods, armored dinosaurs, and even other predators. With a combination of high intelligence, size, and killing power, the Tyrannosaurus Rex was one of the Cretaceous period’s apex predators.
Bird-Like Dinosaurs That Hunted and Had Intelligence
Dromaeosaurids were bird-like dinosaurs that lived in both the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Their fossils have been found in North America, Europe, and Asia. Many of these dinosaurs have evidence of being feathered and they vary in size, but in general they are small considering other dinosaurs.
Deinonychus lived in the late-Cretaceous period, and paleontologists estimate that the habitat it lived in was swampy forests and floodplains based on where its fossils were found. This agile theropod has an estimated mass of 45-68 kilograms and capable of deadly attacks because of its large sickle-like talons, or also known as a “terrible claw” that could grow up to 5 inches long. (Source)
Deinonychus belonged to the Dromaeosaurid group of dinosaurs, which is closely related to Velociraptors and had an EQ dinosaur intelligence of 5.5-5.8 on the scale. It likely hunted smaller prey, but from fossils remains of herbivores, scientists think that they went after larger prey as well.
Some paleontologists believe that Deinonychus was a pack hunter and used its hunting intelligence to communicate while hunting. One of the tactics it could have used is for its sharp teeth to bite pieces of flesh and prevent its prey from escaping, which would be effective if they were pack hunters. Another hunting tactic is that Deinonychus would use its jaw and claws on smaller prey, kicking the prey’s underbelly with its knife-like claw until it collapses.
Compsognathus was a bird-like dinosaur that lived during the Late Jurassic period in Europe. Its fossils have been found in Germany, France, and Portugal. Compsognathus comes from a separate clade or group that is related to Ornthomimosaurs and Maniraptors. It was considered the smallest dinosaur until several smaller raptor-like species were found, and they were considerably smaller than Comsognathus.
It was not a big dinosaur, only about 3 feet (1m) in length determined from the biggest fossil found. Paleontologists have found fossilized remains of lizards in their stomachs. Interestingly, scientists think that the habitat where Compsognathus lived was in coastal areas as they have found mollusks and other sea animals fossilized in the same areas.
As a hunter, it had an EQ of 5.8 or slightly lower as it is an early relative to the Dromaeosaurs and feathered raptors. It would probably have been a skillful hunter – a small, fast and agile, and as mentioned, it hunted lizards and other small prey. Later studies of the fossil stomach remain found evidence of mammals, so it most likely hunted mammals too.
The length and weight of the Utahraptor were 23 feet (7m) long, it weighed about 1,100 lbs (500 kg), which is a considerably large size and one of the largest Dromaeosaurids.
The Utahraptor’s EQ was 5.8, in line with Dromaeosaurids making it a skillful predator, and it hunted smaller dinosaurs, lizards, and other small reptiles and mammals. Dromaeosaurids had a “toe claw” on its hind legs, which was elevated and didn’t touch the ground when walking. Instead, scientists think it was used during hunting to injure prey and help subdue the hunted animal when fighting.
Ever since Jurassic Park, they have become well-known to the public, and there is a lot of interest in their intelligence.
Upfront, I need to state that there are a few misconceptions about Velociraptors because the fossils we have indicate the dinosaur was no bigger than a turkey and most likely were covered in feathers.
Nevertheless, for our discussion about the smartest hunters, they are important to consider since they did have a level of intelligence and most likely were excellent predators and hunters.
Velociraptors existed in what is now present-day Mongolia. During the late Cretaceous, Mongolia was not a desert, but rather it was covered in forests and streams.
It was a bird-like dinosaur, and its length measured 6 feet long (2.1 meters) and weighed 33 lbs (15kg). The Velociraptor was a Dromaeosaurid. Like its relatives, it had the toe claw which it could use as it hunted.
One of the most recognized fossils was the “fighting dinosaurs” fossil in which the Velociraptor and Protoceratops were found fossilized in combat. Fossil evidence shows that the Velociraptor used its toe claw during hunting as it was frozen in time on the Protoceratop’s neck.
As a hunter, the Velociraptor was quick, had razor-sharp teeth for catching smaller prey and three-clawed arms to help subdue them. It had an EQ of 5.8 because it was a Dromaeosaurid. The “fighting dinosaurs” fossil indicates that it hunted small dinosaurs and small reptiles living in the prehistoric Mongolian habitat.
Troodon -The Smartest Dinosaur Hunter
Troodon formosus is a small coelurosaurian dinosaur, roughly about 6 feet, with very long, slender limbs. It is most famous for having a larger brain ratio than other dinosaurs and living reptiles, thus regarded as the smartest dinosaur. It had large, big eyes granting it good vision even at night time like that of an owl, and could rotate its lower arm to grasp objects using its three-fingered hand.
Compared to other Theropods, its teeth weren’t so great for biting into flesh and bones, which is why the idea of Troodon being a plant-based eater was considered at first.
However, due to its raptorial claws and high-developed senses, scientists deduced that Troodons are omnivores and prey on smaller mammals such as birds, fish, snakes, or herbivorous dinosaurs, that can be easily taken down without a fuss.
On the EQ scale, the Troodontids rank the highest. Considering all the physical attributes and adding dinosaur intelligence to that equation, Troodon matches as the most adept hunter because it has the best features of dinosaurs combined.
Its agility allows it to sneak against predators, or even run away from it; its sickle-claw can be used to bury on a prey’s hide until it bleeds to death. Most likely, it could also outsmart prey by trapping them or considering their next move.
Because of its relatively large brain and EQ, it is smart enough to distinguish its dinosaur battles, making it more adaptable to the situation and environment it’s in. It is said that Troodons actually gain knowledge through trial and error of their attacks. (Source)
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Comparing the Top Hunters: Brawn vs. Brain
Comparing the prowess of different dinosaur hunters can be done by looking at the EQ and the advantages the predator had when hunting prey. Also, looking at the prey type, whether larger or smaller, weaponized or with armor, gives a better indication of the predators’ skill.
An animal’s intelligence, by default, is its survival instinct: a combination of skills and abilities to adapt to their specific environment. Habitats and environments were different in the Jurassic, which was hotter and possibly had more places with less vegetation than the Cretaceous. Let’s take a look at specific dinosaur match-ups as hunters and see how they compare.
Hunting Skill – T. Rex versus Troodon
When it comes to size and bite force, Troodon is outmatched by a T-Rex. However, when it comes to agility, Troodons are light and can easily sneak up on prey, then use its powerful claw to wound it.
The T.Rex might be brainy and big, but Troodons are brainy, agile, and even have excellent depth perception. Here’s a summary:
● Size and bite force – T-Rex
● Agility – Troodon
● Sneaking up on prey – Troodon
● Intelligence (EQ) – Troodon
● Senses (Eyes, Ears) – T. Rex
● Extra weapons – Troodon
Hunting Skill – Troodon versus Velociraptor
Just like Troodon, Velociraptors had a curved claw and is used to stab and hook its prey. Binocular vision allowed it to see clearly at night. It was agile, could run up to 40 kilometers per hour, and is considered to have a large brain size compared to most reptiles and dinosaurs. It is even regarded to be as smart as some modern-day birds.
However, Velociraptors have strong jaws made for rapid and snapping bites, while Troodon’s teeth aren’t so great for taking down struggling prey. Despite that, Troodons are known for having 35 teeth more than other theropods.
Thus the name “tooth taxon” allowing it to eat different types of food. Another point for Troodon’s edge is its EQ making it more tactical and capable of killing slightly larger opponents.
Here’s a summary:
● Size and bite force – Troodon
● Agility – Toss-up or equal
● Sneaking up on prey – Troodon
● Intelligence (EQ) – Troodon
● Senses (Eyes, Ears) – Toss-up or equal
● Extra weapons – Toss-up or equal
Hunting Skill Match-Up Table
The two previous comparisons got me thinking about what other hunting skill match-ups would be interesting to look into.
In the table below, I have created a Match-Up Table that matches certain dinosaurs and compares them. In the first column, you can see the match-up pair, and in the second column is a description of the dinosaurs. In the third column, I indicate the advantages each of the dinosaurs have, and finally, in the fourth column, I indicate the better hunter.
Insert Table – Match-up
Dinosaur intelligence, especially applied to measuring hunting skills and determining the smartest hunter, is more complex than who was the biggest brained dinosaur. Certainly, as discussed above, a dinosaur with the largest brain could be a good hunter. Still, the dinosaur’s physical attributes, such as good hearing, sense of smell, or eyesight, could enhance hunting ability.
Wouldn’t it be great to know how an Allosaurus in the Jurassic era stalked a Stegosaurs or hunted sauropods, or to find out if Deinonychus hunted in packs and if they used modern-day mammal hunting tactics?
Studies regarding dinosaur intelligence and EQ are still ongoing, and every year paleontologists find new fossils adding to the knowledge base about these fascinating creatures. Maybe with the next decade of fossils and advancements in technology, we will get closer to finding out!
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