Dolphins are typically thought to be highly intelligent mammals, and they are often portrayed that way in Hollywood movies & TV shows. In these movies, they can save humans from drowning, protect them from being attacked by sharks, and often will display complex problem solving skills. There have even been some political movement to classify them as “nonhuman persons”.
All the hubbub has caused one reader to email us and ask, “Are dolphins really uniquely intelligent?” That’s the question we plan to tackle today; Are there any truth to the claims that dolphins are vastly intelligent, perhaps even nearly intelligent as humans?
What Is Intelligence?
Before we can answer the question, we need to know what “intelligence” is. There is quite a bit of debate on a few of the finer details, but for the most part, the wikipedia page on the topic provides a very succinct answer. It says that intelligence is defined as, “one’s capacity for understanding, logic, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, and problem solving.”
So how do we measure those things? With humans, we can give someone a battery of tests, and while the compiled results may not have pinpoint accuracy, they can give a general ballpark idea of someone’s intellectual capacity relative to others.
The way intelligence is measured in humans rely heavily on reading, verbal ability and language (IQ tests, etc), so trying to give animals or dolphins a test for a human doesn’t make sense since they wouldn’t understand the questions. Instead, intelligence tests for animals are tailored more for cognitive ability and problem solving skills, as well as response to novelty (response to novelty is how we test an infant’s intelligence).
How Well Do Dolphins Perform On Intelligence Tests?
Despite their incredibly social nature, cute and charming attitudes, and perceived intelligence, dolphins don’t actually score off the charts as one would believe. They do score very high on these intelligence tests, but there are quite a few other animals also score just as well. Chickens, for example, are capable of social learning, also communicate using a complex set of vocalizations, and can identify and remember individual members of their social groups. These are all traits that have been used as evidence of dolphins’ superior intellect.
The whistles dolphins use to communicate, while varied and complex, do not qualify as a language. They can and do use tools, but there is zero evidence that they manufacture them as chimpanzees and crows have shown to do. There have been claims that dolphins also can empathize and display complex emotions, however, scientific studies have come up inconclusive on this topic.
Another test used to measure a dolphins’ intelligence is the mirror test. This test is to test an animal’s self-awareness. It’s conducted by placing temporary dye, paint or a sticker on an animal in a place it cannot normally see, then placing a mirror in front of them. If the animal then touches & investigates the mark, it is shown to have self-awareness. While bottle-nosed dolphins did pass the test, they aren’t the only animals to have done so — great apes, an Asiatic elephant, orcas, and the Eurasian magpie have also passed.
While dolphins are highly intelligent, incredibly social, and lovable creatures, there are quite a few myths and misunderstandings regarding these beautiful and charming animals. They certainly are clever mammals, but are they uniquely clever? That really hasn’t been shown to be the case thus far – every test they do well on has had other animals do just as well.
While dolphins can display complex behaviors, there are other animals who display equally complex behavior – sometimes more complex. For an in-depth breakdown of these tests and myths, psychologist Justin Gregg published a book titled, “Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth.” The book goes into greater detail regarding these tests and how well dolphins have performed relative to other animals. Gregg wrote his dissertation on dolphin echolocation and social cognition and is currently working with the Dolphin Communication Project.
When asked if he thought dolphins were dumb, Gregg answered, “Absolutely not. I’d say that they are highly intelligent, but then of course, it’s really hard to define what intelligence is. That’s the big caveat.”
References & Citations:
“Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth.” Justin Gregg (2013-12-01)
“Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence“. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
“Sorry, dolphins are not uniquely intelligent.” Boston Globe, 2/2/2014
Derr, Mark. “Brainy Dolphins Pass the Human ‘Mirror’ Test“. New York Times.