Are dolphins really as smart as they are talked about?

In the brilliant classic of Douglas Adams "Hitchhikeracross the galaxy ”were several animals smarter than humans. One, not without irony, was an ordinary laboratory mouse. Another creature knew about intergalactic bulldozers that eventually vaporized the planet, and tried to warn us of an impending fate. The last dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double somersault through a hoop whistling a funny song, but in reality the message was: “All the best and thank you for the fish!”

They say dolphins have an unusual levelintelligence that distinguishes and elevates them above the rest of the animal world. It is widely believed that dolphins are very intelligent (perhaps smarter than humans), have complex behaviors, and possess proto-language abilities. However, recently, against the background of studies of these animals, a somewhat different, sometimes opposite opinion has developed.


  • 1 Dolphin Supremacy
  • 2 Why big brains
  • 3 Smarter!
  • 4 Craving for knowledge

Dolphin excellence

The elevated status of dolphins among animalsappeared with John Lilly, a 1960s dolphin researcher and psychotropic drug lover. He was the first to popularize the idea that dolphins are smart, and later even suggested that they are smarter than humans.

Ultimately, after the 1970s, Lilly was inmostly discredited and made little contribution to the science of dolphin knowledge. But despite the efforts of the mainstream scientists to distance themselves from his bizarre ideas (that dolphins were spiritually enlightened) and even the craziest (that dolphins communicate with holographic images), his name is inevitably associated with dolphin studies.

“He is, and I think most dolphinologists will agree with me, the father of dolphin intelligence,” Justin Gregg writes in his book, “Are Dolphins Smart?”

Since Lilly’s research, dolphins have shownthat they understand the signals transmitted by the television screen, distinguish parts of their bodies, recognize their own image in the mirror and have a complex repertoire of whistles and even names.

Anyway, all these ideas latelyare in doubt. Gregg's book is the last tug of war between neuroanatomy, behavior and communication - between the ideas that dolphins are special and that they are on par with many other creatures.

Why big brains

So far, the debunking of dolphin abilities has dealt with two main topics: anatomy and behavior.

In 2013, anatomist Paul Manger published an article in which he substantiated his position that the dolphin’s big brain has nothing to do with intelligence.

Manger, University ResearcherThe Witwatersrand in South Africa previously claimed that the dolphin’s large brain was most likely to have developed to help the animal retain heat rather than perform cognitive functions. This 2006 article was widely criticized by the dolphinologist research community.

In his new work (also written by Manger)he takes a critical approach to the study of brain anatomy, archaeological records, and frequently referred to behavioral research, concluding that cetaceans are not smarter than other invertebrates and that their large brains appeared for a different purpose. This time, he cites many behavioral observations as an example of image recognition in a mirror, which was carried out in September 2011 and appeared as a result of Discover. Manger found them incomplete, incorrect or obsolete.

Lori Marino, a neuroanatomist at Emory University who advocates for brain intelligence, is working on a rebuttal.

Get smarter!

Another argument is that dolphin behavior is wrongimpressive as they say about him, Gregg leads. As a professional dolphin researcher, he notes that he respects the “achievements” of dolphins in the field of cognition, but feels that the public and other researchers have slightly overestimated their real level of cognitive abilities. In addition, many other animals exhibit the same impressive features.

In his book, Gregg refers to expertswhich cast doubt on the value of the self-perception test in the mirror, which is believed to indicate some degree of self-awareness. Gregg notes that octopuses and pigeons can behave like dolphins if you give them a mirror.

Gregg also claims that communicationsdolphins are overrated. Although their whistles and clicks are certainly complex forms of audio signals, they nevertheless do not have the features characteristic of the human language (such as the conclusion of finite concepts and meanings or freedom from emotions).

He also criticizes attemptsapply information theory - a branch of mathematics - to information enclosed in whistles of dolphins. Can information theory be applied to animal communication at all? Gregg doubts, and he is not alone.

Gregg stresses that dolphins are definitelypossess many impressive cognitive abilities, but many other animals too. And not necessarily the smartest: many chickens are as smart in some tasks as dolphins, Gregg believes. Spiders also demonstrate amazing cognitive abilities, and yet they have eight eyes at all.

Craving for knowledge

It’s important to note that researchers like Mangerare in the minority among scientists studying the cognitive abilities of dolphins. Moreover, even Gregg is trying to distance himself from the thought of mediocrity of dolphins - he rather says that other animals are smarter than we thought.

Even Gordon Gallup, a neuroscientist and behavioral scientist who was the first to use mirrors to assess primates' self-awareness, expresses doubt that dolphins are capable of this.

“In my opinion, the videos shot during this experiment are not convincing,” he said in 2011. "They are suggestive, but not convincing."

Arguments Against the Exclusivity of Dolphinscome down to three main ideas. Firstly, according to Manger, dolphins are simply not smarter than other animals. Secondly, it is difficult to compare one species with another. Thirdly, there are too few studies on this subject to draw strong conclusions.

Despite the reputation of animals with exceptional intelligence, dolphins may not be as smart as they thought.

Scott Norris, a bioscience writer, notes thatThe "cunning Scott Lilly" contributed a lot to creating the image of "smart dolphins" in the 1960s. He was fascinated by dolphins and spent years teaching them how to talk. Lilly’s experiments were unethical, sometimes even immoral, but he wasn’t the only one trying to teach the language of animals to which the rudiments of intelligence were attributed. Complex communications are born from social systems, and social interactions require other traits that are often associated with intelligence. In order to form and remember social connections, learn new behaviors and work together, you need a culture.

From this point of view, dolphins reallydemonstrate behavior and practices related to culture and developed intelligence. Norris notes that studies of wild dolphins and whales show that their vocalization is diverse and specific enough to be considered a language. Dolphins easily master new behavior and are even capable of imitation. They track complex social hierarchies within and between groups. They even, as you know, invent new forms of behavior in response to new situations, and this, according to Norris, some scientists consider "the most distinctive feature of intelligence." Moreover, dolphins can even teach each other these new behaviors. Norris describes how some dolphin populations used sponges to protect them from scratches and taught others this technique. Such a transfer of practices is considered by many to be the origin of culture.

Yes, dolphins seem smarter than manyspecies, but their behavior is in no way unique to dolphins. Many animals, such as wild boars, dogs, primates or sea lions, have complex vocalization, social relationships, the ability to learn, imitate and adapt to new situations, just as difficult. Many skills, in particular training, are more developed in other species than in dolphins. Cultural exchange, which has yet to be proved among dolphins, is less common, but other animals are still not well understood. Other examples may be identified.

The problem is not only and not so much whetherdolphins, because at a certain level they are really smart, but whether they are smarter than other animals, and this is still unknown. Dolphins love to attribute human traits. Many dolphins can distinguish “faces” and “smiles”, which cannot be said, for example, about wild boar. Looking at this grinning face, we begin to see people in dolphins. Are dolphins smart? It all depends on how smart you want to see them.