Cognitive Daily

How smart are dolphins, anyway?

Slashdot points to an Aljazeera (!) article about dolphin intelligence (or lack thereof). The article quotes scientist Paul Manger, who argues that since dolphins never think to jump out of enclosures such as holding tanks in aquariums, or tuna nets, they clearly aren’t very smart. After all, even a goldfish will jump out of its tank if you don’t put a lid on it.

Manger’s argument may be a little simplistic (“escaping” to suffocation is hardly an example of “intelligence”), but it does bring up an interesting point: are dolphins really as smart as most people seem to think? A Wikipedia article sheds a bit more light on the subject: Dolphins show complex social behaviors, they communicate with one another, they may use tools, and they may demonstrate self-awareness (though this research is disputed).

The evidence for dolphin intelligence appears to be much less clearcut than it is for other animals, especially primates. After all, plenty of “dumb” animals like fish are also social, and lots of animals have crude methods of calling to each other. The research on self-awareness and tool use is intriguing, but the results of those studies are hardly conclusive.

Dolphins may be cute, and they can be trained to do impressive tricks, but it’s doubtful that they possess humanlike intelligence.


  1. #1 Timothy Chase
    August 21, 2006

    I would ask, “How good are they at solving puzzles?” Of course, it might be a little difficult to design puzzles for them as they lack the appropriate appendiges. But this is how we have been able to demonstrate that octopi have intelligence roughly as great or greater than our closest relatives.

    Granted – they undoubtedly lack human intelligence, but all this means is that their intelligence is different. As for evidence which suggests that they are intelligent in some meaningful sense, I can immediately think of four things.

    First, they are able to communicate three-dimensional maps to one-another. (Of course, one might ask if this is all that different from a bee dance.)

    Second, they seem to know enough to save a human who drowning. (This goes as far back as the ancient Greeks and continues up to this day. Of course, mothers will often save their children – among a great many different species.)

    Third, dolphins have been known to protect helpless humans from Great Whites. (However, this seems similar to saving a human who is drowing – in either case, the dolphin is helping an animal which is otherwise helpless – just as it would help one of its own children.)

    Fourth, dolphins appear capable of some cultural transmission: fishermen and wild dolphins have been cooperating for centuries in catching fish at one location, with dolphins driving schools of fish where fishermen will cast nets, then in the ensuing confusion among the fish go after the stragglers. Fishermen aren’t teaching this activity to new dolphins – the new dolphins pick this up by watching their mates.

    The last of these suggests hypothetical reasoning from cause to effect and an intelligence which exceeds that of Mr. Manger.

  2. #2 Dave
    August 21, 2006

    Seriously, what’s with the (!) after Aljazeera? It’s an independent middle-eastern news station, many of whose staff came from the BBC World Service. David Frost works at Aljazeera these days.

  3. #3 Katherine Moore
    August 21, 2006

    One thing that is tricky about these “how smart is X species” debates is that they require defining intelligence itself, which is difficult (or impossible). Humans are capable of extraordinary intellectual feats, but other species are capable of some things that we are not capable of. Moreover, there are probably numerous skills that other species possess that we are entirely unaware of, simply because we don’t have the “intelligence” to test these skills and uncover them.

  4. #4 Shelley Batts
    August 21, 2006

    Hmmm, I feel a blog post coming on. :)

    Dolphins are facinating, although their intelligence cannot truly be defined by “they are smart because they think like us.” Most of what makes people think dolphins are smart is anecdotal experience and their ability to perform interesting tricks. They are also highly social and form complex individual and group bonds. My undergrad mentor at New College (Heidi Harley) studied their ability to recognize object by sight and ecolocation, this abilty is extremely complex and likely consumes a large amount of cognitive processing ability. I believe that could explain their large brains to a point. However, this guy who says dolphins are dumb because they don’t jump over dividers or nets is just a dimwit himself. Thats like saying humans are stupid because we can’t get into the 4th dimension. We can’t perceive it as part of our evolved reality, much as dolphins don’t perceive space outside of their aquatic environment as their reality.

  5. #5 So-Called "Austin Mayor"
    August 21, 2006

    I’m waiting for the follow up story about how this study was funded by the Norwegians and Japanese.

  6. #6 ugh.
    August 21, 2006

    The fact that this post itself doesn’t say anything about the perceptive abilities of dolphins, which are in many regards more complex than our own, implies an underlying misunderstanding of what makes ‘anything’ intelligent.

    Let’s not forget that far more computational power is put into visual pattern recognition in humans than say, logical reasoning ability. (IMHO, it’s the robust models required to process visual stimulus that provide the framework for our abstract thinking… there are very skilled blind painters for example.)

  7. #7 A Pang
    August 22, 2006

    *cough*douglas adams*cough*

  8. #8 Dave Group
    August 22, 2006

    Flipper sighed. “If only I had opposable thumbs,” he squeaked.

  9. #9 Jagosaurus
    August 22, 2006

    I have to agree with the previous commenter who pointed out that we have know what intelligence is in order to determine it in ourselves and other species.

    I think our bias about our own intelligence is something that should be admitted to and factored into all discussions about animal intelligence.

    Er, more Douglas Adams.

  10. #10 Jenny
    August 22, 2006

    “If dolphins are so smart, why do they live in igloos?” – Eric Cartman

  11. #11 Dwight Brown
    August 22, 2006

    From an evolutionary point of view, all organisms adapt to their environments, and are “better” there than anyone else. If we are going to compare animals, we must also compare environments and that is probably more difficult than defining intelligence in the first place. Perhaps all such comparisons are, after all, odious. It is no accident that there are millions of different species on this earth – every one of them earned the “right” to be here. We humans are perhaps among the few who are violating this cosmic principle of fitness – fitting in. Check back in a couple of million years and see who is the most intelligent at that point!

  12. #12 Thomas Palm
    August 29, 2006

    Obviously it is going to be harder to show “intelligence” in dolphins than in primates. Primates are closer related to us and live in environments more similar to ours so it will be much easier to recognize anything they do as intelligent.

    Even smart people can be remarkably stupid in some respects. A doctor can smoke despite knowing how dangerous it is, so I think intelligence has to be based on whether or not someone does smart things, not if he occasionally does something stupid like fail to realize that he can jump outside a net.

    I’ve certainly read enough stories about what dolphins can do to be convinced they are pretty smart. For example, the way one group of dolphins learned to create complex bubbles in the water is clever, or can you figure out how to make a bubble formed like a horisontal corkscrew?

    Even more impressive is an epxeriment where two dolphins were taught the two commands “do something new” (they could do anything as long as they hadn’t done it before), and “do x together” where they were supposed to do x at the same time. Both of these concepts are fairly complex and show intelligence to understand, but the interesting is when they were combined inte “do something new together” and the dolphins whistled for a while and then simultaneously jumped out of the water blowing a jet of water from their mouths at the top of the leap.

  13. #13 Rolando
    December 23, 2007

    Dolphins are indeed smart, but cannot be compared with our social complexity in which we humans can be freindly and peaceful, and sometimes be murderous and cold blooded killers while they contain the natural instinct to protect and help one another.

  14. #14 fred sturdevant
    November 7, 2008

    Now is the time for all good dolphins to come to aid of his country.

  15. #15 wesley snipes
    February 6, 2009

    so whoa dolophins could be more intelligent than humans?

  16. #16 Ed Yong
    March 3, 2009

    According to the Aljazeera writer, dolphins are stupid because they do not leap out of an enclosure where they are in their element into another arena where they would merely flop around ineffectually and look like an idiot.

    Perhaps said writer could apply the dolphin’s strategy to the area of science commentary.

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