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Brain Power

We always knew whales and dolphins showed intelligence, but new research is revealing how little we really know. They're more like us than you might have suspected yet at the same time have also evolved to be perfectly adapted for their marine home.
 Bottlenose dolphin


For most animals, such as insects, the skills needed for survival are hard-wired into their genetic make-up, kicking in when they’re needed. In some cases, such as with many mammals and birds, nurture is added to nature, so that each generation learns necessary skills – such as migratory routes, predatory abilities, awareness of danger and more – from their elders. In the case of humans, we’ve gone one step further. Rather than just passing on generic skills, each individual is able to educate others based upon their own experience. In this type of individual learning, we thought we were alone.

We are not. Research and observations in recent years have revealed that whales and dolphins not only have the ability to learn as individuals, but those individuals can then pass their new knowledge onto others. This is a rare intelligence in the animal kingdom.

So how smart are dolphins? This video by renowned scientist Lori Marino, explains how their intelligence evolved.

There are plenty of other examples too...

Take Kelly. A dolphin who sadly lives in a research centre in the US, she has been trained to keep her tank clean. Every time she brings a piece of litter to her trainer, she is rewarded with a fish. So she’s built upon the idea. Now, when she finds a piece of paper, she wedges it under a stone, and tears off individual pieces, which she brings to the surface one at a time. Thus, a single piece of litter earns her several fish. She’s also noticed that gulls come to her tank, hungry for fish. So she uses one of her fish as bait, catches the unwary birds, and presents them to her trainers for even more food. She has not only created these remarkable strategies by herself, but she’s even passed them on to her calf.

Then there’s Billie. A dolphin who became trapped in a sealock in the 1980s, she was rescued and rehabilitated in captivity before being released back into the wild just three weeks later. Scientists were amazed to see that, upon her return to the seas, she started tail-walking, a trick taught in marine parks for rewards that she must have observed, even though during those three weeks she was not trained herself. To have picked up the skill so rapidly is one thing… but Billie was soon teaching her wild companions to do the same. A remarkable example of social learning, and great intelligence. 


It is often said that play is the greatest expression of intelligence, and whales and dolphins are among the most playful of all in the animal kingdom. Dolphins often follow ships in order to collect the fish churned up their wake, rather like gulls, which has a practical function... but they're not always behind the stern. Sometimes they can be seen to port and starboard, riding the bow-waves just like surfers. Why? Well, wouldn't you if you could?

In fact, when it comes to creating games, dolphins know few rivals. Many of them enjoy a game of catch, perhaps with a fish or even a turtle, throwing the animal back and forth to each other with no intention of eating it. Then there are activities that remind us of our games of tag. One dolphin will nudge another a few times to indicate its willingness for a game, then high speed pursuit will take place through the sea, as they take turns chasing each other.

Some dolphins have taken their play to, quite literally, extraordinary heights, and teamed up with other animals in the process. Film has been revealed of amazing games between bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales off Hawaii. The dolphins swim onto the nose of the whales, which then raise themselves out of the water to a great height, so that the dolphins slide down their heads with a great splash. As the game is repeated over and again, it seems clear that both individuals are enjoying it.

Just like humans, though, whales and dolphins only really want to play when the mood takes them. Having to play forced games in marine parks, every hour on the hour, for the amusement of humans, can really take the fun out of the whole thing. In the wild, however, the play is genuinely infectious, and reveals a deep intelligence that needs, from time to time, to let off a little steam.


Shark Bay, off the Australian coastline. A dolphin is sighted, and appears to be carrying something. Close inspection reveals it to be a conch, carried in the dolphin's beak like a trumpet. The dolphin swims beneath the water, then appears above the surface again. The conch is full, and the dolphin shakes it. The seawater drains out, leaving small fish trapped in the bottom. One deft flick of his beak, and the dolphin has earned himself a tasty snack.

This is just one of dozens of creative ways in which whales and dolphins have honed their feeding methods over generations, and each new discovery is rapidly passed onto their peers. The Australian bottlenose dolphins in particular have developed quite a range of tools and methods to aid mealtimes. One of these is known as sponging: the dolphins grab a sea-sponge and dive down to the bottom of deep channels with it. Holding the sponges tightly in their beaks, they then poke them into the sandy sea bed, disturbing small fish in hiding. The fish emerge, the sponge is dropped, the meal eaten, and then the tool picked up once more for further foraging.

Then there's the bubble net, a neat trick exhibited by humpback whales. A group of humpbacks locates a school of fish. Attacking them is likely to disperse them, so instead they swim beneath the fish in ever shrinking circles, blowing air bubbles as they go. The densely packed bubbles rise in similarly shrinking circles, effectively trapping the fish as the 'net' gets tighter, and then at the right moment, the whales swim up the net, mouths agape, and swallow the fish in great clusters. The whales all have different roles: some are bubble-blowers, others dive deep to ensure the fish are driven upwards, and some even make calls to help herd the prey. Teamwork, passed on from generation to generation.

Other species also work cooperatively when hunting. Orcas in Norway, for example, work together to herd schools of herring into tight balls. Swimming round and under their prey to create a bait ball, the orcas then spin around and slap the balled fish with their tails, stunning them for easy feeding.

There are many other exceptional methods used by whales and dolphins to catch and find their prey, and each reveals great levels of intelligence and social cooperation.

The need to be free

They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.’ It’s the memorable quote from the 1995 film Braveheart, and it will stand the test of time. To humans, freedom is the ultimate right, and we’ll fight for it to our deaths.

leaping bottlenose dolphin calf

Suffering under confinement is shared by whales and dolphins, too. Unlike many animals that live longer in captivity than in the wild, in the case of these marine mammals it’s the other way round. Life expectancy is considerably shorter across the species, while infant mortality is higher. Male orcas, for example, live an average 30 years in the wild, while females average 46 years, with some living to 80 or 90. However, in a recent analysis of orcas born in captivity or captured from the wild, their average survival rate is estimated at only 8.5 years.

Whales and dolphins are wide-ranging, with large extended families and often huge social groups, in which individuals are dependent upon each other. Remove them from both these aspects of their lives, and the claustrophobic effects upon them can become catastrophic. Depression, physical illness and aberrant behaviour have all been documented. It is therefore unsurprising that, from time to time, human trainers are hurt or even killed by captive individuals, such as orcas, that have become unnaturally aggressive from being held in stressful artificial environments. In addition, those taken into captivity from the wild are not the only ones that suffer. The groups that are left behind may depend upon them for many social reasons, and vital bonds necessary for orca survival can be broken as key members are taken from family groups.

People who enjoy swimming with dolphins, or dolphin-assisted therapy, often say that the dolphins themselves seem so happy. Sadly, but understandably, they are misunderstanding the situation. The apparent smile on the faces of dolphins is actually just a physicality, not an emotive response. It remains there as part of dolphin anatomy, no matter how sad, upset or ill they may be. 


Even a cursory read through the chapters here will show that whales and dolphins lead complex and fascinating lives. We know that bottlenose dolphin are self-aware, because they can recognise themselves in a mirror. We know that some whales and dolphins teach their offspring to do specific tasks and pass knowledge between generations in what we now recognise as unique cultures. Some have complex ways of communicating with each other and enjoy the benefits of living in social groups and many seem to love to play. In fact, they rather remind us of ourselves.

the eye of a gray whale

All of which rather begs a question. Because we humans, as a species, require the above in order to live our lives to the full, we have recognised that, as individuals, we have the right to these freedoms of self-expression. So, if whales and dolphins enjoy similarly rich lives, should their rights not be recognised, too?

There is a growing movement that believes that they should. In 2010 a manifesto was launched entitled 'Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins', and the first NGO to adopt the Declaration was WDC. The document contends that all whales and dolphins have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing.

Could such a moral and legal change really occur? Well, a century or so ago, few could possibly have imagined that human society would ever protect wildlife for wildlife's sake. Today, however, the concept of conservation is readily accepted, and each succeeding generation finds it hard to believe the negligence of the previous. Perhaps one day, there will be a generation that muses: 'It's astonishing to think that our grandparents didn't realise that whales and dolphins have rights'. These are changing times.