What do we know about intelligence in whales and dolphins?

Everybody knows that whales and dolphins have large brains and are quite smart. Indeed, they can catch prey, migrate thousands of kilometers and even interact with other species. In this post, we cover cetacean intelligence, from self-awareness to transmitting culture, and try to answer this question: could these animals be as smart, if not smarter, than us?

Anthropomorphism represents the belief that animals can experience the same thoughts and emotions as human beings. In this sense, many scholars argue that scientists, like Jane Goodall, can be biased while overestimating the similarity between humans and other animals. However, cetaceans are deeply emotional beings that use tools and languages with local dialects. Besides opposable thumbs and other apparent differences, could they be just like us?

Beauty, and Brains!

Cetacean brains are surprisingly similar to our own. Orcas, for example, show cerebral folding that is more impressive than in humans. This helps them process more information at remarkable speeds. Moreover, this particular species presents the most complex insular cortex in the world. This part of the brain is involved in consciousness and self-awareness as well as processing emotions such as empathy and compassion. Most whales exhibit social and cultural structures similar to our own, and in this sense, there is no denying that practical and emotional intelligence emanates from these animals. 

“I think, therefore I am.”

In general, self-awareness, consciousness, feelings, and intelligence are essential to the definition of a person. Since 1970, many studies have shown that marine mammals have sophisticated cognitive abilities like self-recognition and a sense of identity. For example, a study published in 2013 found that bottlenose dolphins use unique whistles to address each other. In other words, they use signature whistles like “names”. Researchers also established that young dolphins could recognize themselves in a mirror 7 months after birth, whereas human babies take up to 18 months to do so. Could these animals qualify as non-human persons? So far, the science says YES.

Love and Loss

Feelings of deep affection are not unique to human beings. The bond between a mother and child is perhaps the best example of such intense relationships that these animals also experience. Most of us remember the heartbreaking struggle of J35 (named Tahlequah, a Southern Resident Killer Whale). This mother orca carried her dead calf’s body for 17 days in the Pacific North-West waters. This event captured the world’s attention and seemed to be an obvious display of grief to all who watched on helplessly. Such behavior is not uncommon in other cetaceans. Most scientists who spend time among these animals would agree that whales have individuality and unique personalities all the while belonging to tight-knit families. Considering that whales are so intelligent, one could be tempted to compare their behaviors to our own.

Friendship and Acceptance

If you’ve ever seen a dolphin or orca pod socialize with one another, it is not difficult to acknowledge the intricate and profound bonds that tie them together. One might say that they experience friendship and brotherhood. The notion of “friendship” within the marine mammalian world has been documented more than once. One recent phenomenon of “befriending” in the St. Lawrence Estuary found a group of beluga whales adopting a juvenile narwhal who was astray. To this day, the Narwhal still travels with the group of belugas and engages in social and sexual behaviors with them. This type of empathy and open-mindedness to other species is yet again proof of their deep emotional intelligence.

Whales have culture too

The human species evolved in an ever-changing environment where social learning was key to its survival. In this sense, social learning and cultural transmission allowed us to pass on information or tools that none of us could acquire alone. In the case of whales, there is proof that they created a marine-based culture thanks to their remarkable intelligence. Indeed, many scientists around the world have been arguing that whales have culture and that social learning enables this cultural transmission. For example, cetaceans learn from their peers how to forage for food, use tools, sing a specific song, etc. Grandmother orcas are another great example of this phenomenon. They carry with them crucial knowledge that helps protect their families from starvation. Culture and intelligence is expressed in small and in big ways, but there is no denying that whales and dolphins do have rich cultures too.

Opinion: humans should acknowledge cetacean intelligence

The attribution of human behaviors, experiences, and emotions to other animals (even monkeys and whales) has long been dismissed in the scientific community. However, I believe that whales are non-human people too. Science proves it, and humans are nowhere near as special or superior as we like to think. So perhaps it is time that we change the way we think and interact with cetaceans.

Thank you for reading! What do you think about intelligence in cetaceans? Let us know in the comments section.

Laura Zeppetelli-Bédard is a MS.c. cadidate and research assistant at Université du Québec à Montréal. She is currently participating in a research project aimed at monitoring contaminants in the tissues of northern belugas (Delphinapteurs leucas) as part of the Arctic Contaminants Program.

7 thoughts on “What do we know about intelligence in whales and dolphins?”

    1. Laura Zeppetelli-Bédard

      We’re happy to hear that you enjoyed the article! Indeed, those belugas are so wholesome.

  1. Vanessa Victoria

    Wonderful, wonderful article. Thank you so much for reminding us all of the exceptional qualities of cetaceans. The only thing I would point out is that the signature whistles of dolphins were established much earlier than 2013.

      1. Would love you to make a full documentary about this topic! You confirmed again why whales are my favorite animals 🙂 thank you!

  2. wow.. i learned a lot about whale intelligence from this article. I’m guessing there is still a lot of debate regarding these observations, or have they been reproduced by other studies to the point there would be no argument?

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