How Smart Are Whales And Dolphins?
Whales and dolphins have always captured the human imagination. While dolphins have often been considered tame and part of our Greek mythology, whales have somehow gathered an ‘infamy’ in our imagination. Maybe it was due to their size but for some reason, hunting whales became a thing of sport, a challenge to be conquered. We have moved past that terrible time. And now, as researchers explore the world of marine animals – they are more and more amazed by it.
Since brain size is proportionate to our body, the brain of a sperm whale is huge. It’s 5 times that of a human brain. The encephalization quotient (brain to boost size ratio) of a bottlenose dolphin is second only to humans. It’s one of the reasons why these marine creatures have survived for so long. The largest known animal on this planet is the blue whale. But that doesn’t mean they are without threats. The killer whale is the apex predator in the marine world and though they are smaller in size, killer whales are a threat to blue whales.
Whales have existed long before humans have. Evolution has worked on them constantly and no wonder, they held the greatest intellectual strength before we swooped in and took away that spot. But what do they do with their intellectual side?
Nan Hauser, an American conservationist, and scientist asked this very question. It came to her when she had an encounter with a strange humpback whale off the coast of Cook Islands back in the year 2017. Humpbacks leave humans alone but when Nan was whale-watching, a humpback tried to push her away with its pectoral fins. She thought she would lose her life. But suddenly, she noticed a tiger shark tail nearby. Tiger sharks attack humans and are a menace to the world of whales too. It seemed that the humpback was trying to rescue Hauser.
Humpbacks have a charisma. They are the ones who tend to propel themselves out of the surface of the water, see the world from outside, and communicate with other species, probably the arboreal ones and the whale watchers. They also sing underwater and their songs can get carried over a hundred miles.
And yet, the most striking thing about humpbacks are that they are the rescuers of the oceans. They are known to put themselves in front of others, especially when killer whales try to attack other forms of marine life, like whale or dolphin calves. For example, dolphins do save drowning humans– it’s not a fictional movie scene.
The reason for this kind of altruism is difficult to pinpoint. It might be that whales tend to develop a protective nature for their calves which they also extend to the wider world. It seems like the mythical image of whales singing and doing altruism all over the marine world.
And yet we hunted them for oil and pushed them to the verge of extinction. It remained a popular sport even in the 1960s and 70s.
It might seem like a surprise that we are finding all this information now about a creature that had existed before our time. Well, the reason is, whales have always been a difficult mammal to study in a marine world. They were stereotyped as a giant fish, not as an intellectual marine animal.
Lori Marino, an expert of animal intelligence and a neuroscientist, claims that whales have a complicated brain. Imaging techniques have brought about new findings on it. Marino has published conclusive evidence that shows that bottlenose dolphins are one of the few animals that can recognize their own selves in a mirror, thus, placing them in the category of magpies, great apes, and Asian elephants.
The brain of the whale has been adapted to deal with the 3-D world for survival and that makes it difficult to compare their intelligence with ours. So, if someone asks ‘How smart a whale is?’, we can’t answer that. We do not quite know and our limited knowledge of neuroscience will not be able to give a proper answer. Plus, our biases by comparing it to a ‘human’ benchmark will only demean it. For them, smartness should be determined on the way they can deal with the environment?
So, when we ask if dolphins are actually smart, we should answer they can do X and Y which implies they have significant brain power. For example, whales have the ability to navigate and communicate under water. Dolphins tend to use sonar or echolocation to develop a 3D map of its surroundings. They can create a hologram based on the reflected sound coming back them after hitting a surface. Acoustics help them construct the world and create an auditory image of it. Dolphins also has an amazing processing power going 20 times above that of humans. They can also feel a wide range of emotions, which was previously thought to be human expertise. Dolphins happen to be self-aware as well. On the other hand, the limbic system of a killer whale (limbic system helps in forming memories and emotions) is so exaggerated that it forms a paralimbic lobe. It might result in collective self-awareness among whales. Collectiveness means that what occurs to the rest of the pod will impact them too.
This might explain why mass strandings take place and we often find groups of whales beached in different areas. Social network and family is important for them. Hence, we often find cultural aspects too. For example, bottlenose dolphins have a multi-level alliance structure. They have a sample-like network which makes them understand who their friends are and also their foes. In the marine world, dolphins use the body of a scorpion fish to fish out a moray eel. Some use sea sponges to locate fish. These show the high capacity of problem-solving skills.
When dolphins were kept in captivity since the 1960s, their intelligence like self-recognition, problem-solving, language and social structures became apparent. In military facilities and marine parks, dolphins showed wonderful problem-solving skills. They can even remember a unique whistle for over 20 years. Plus, dolphins are quite playful. Once, a scientist used seaweed as a crown-like Poseidon and the dolphin imitated it. When the scientist threw the seaweed into the water, the dolphin was back with it on its head. That’s a sign of intelligence too.
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Well, we still don’t know much about these cetaceans but we know that captivity causes them distress. Marino does not work with captive animals. For dolphins, captivity means sensory deprivation. They don’t have to use echolocation which is essential for them. It’s like solitary confinement in the dark. For the proper study, we should release them in the wild and truly see how they act.
And as for their intelligence, we should try to judge it as unique without comparing it with ours. We are not the superior benchmark.
IMAGE CREDIT: Paul Wolf