Are they as intelligent as humans? What's your opinion? Are you one of those who believe that dolphins are highly intelligent ... just as intelligent as humans in fact?

Or would you say (bottom line) that they're no more intelligent than a dog, meaning that they can be trained to obey simple commands, but can't be expected to contribute much to discussions on the meaning of life.

Perhaps you are someone who believes that dolphins are MORE intelligent than humans, and that those sleek and adorable mammals swimming alongside the tourist boat may be giggling together in dolphinese about the colour of the inhabitants' swimwear. You know, there's even talk of dolphins originally belonging to a super-species from outer space that came to Earth to observe humans!

Would you rank dolphins as -

  • less intelligent than humans

  • just as intelligent as humans

  • more intelligent than humans

One step closer to an answer

The intelligence of dolphins is a long-running argument, and it's far from over. But recently, according to researchers working at an American aquarium, we got one step closer to the answer.

The researchers announced that dolphins could do something that only humans and apes were thought to be capable of doing. What did they do? They looked at themselves in a mirror. And exactly why is that so exciting ... ? Here's why ...

It's all to do with how you can measure a dolphin intelligence. As you can imagine, it's very hard to come up with a way to measure the intelligence of dolphins - or indeed any animal. Have you got a way you'd go about it?

An intelligent look

When you look at the face of a dolphin, they certainly look intelligent. They can even

nod and interact when a human talks to them. But then so do many animals, including my Jack Russell dog. 'Scrabble' tips her head from side to side when you talk to her as if she's taking in every word.

But as of yesterday, when she stashed a large piece of leftover quiche in the bottom of my bed (ready for later?), I refute any claims that she is 'intelligent'! Similarly perhaps the dolphin's sincere eyes and highly domed brow are signs that there is some highly advanced mental processing going on inside, but then again, perhaps it's just a result of the shape of their bones.

Brain size

Looking at brain size would be another way to go, but although this was a popular option at one stage, most scientists now agree it can't be relied on. The cow, for example, has a ratio of brain mass to body weight that is similar to the dolphin, but it's worth noting that not many people argue that cows are super-intelligent.

What about an intelligence test?

Devising an intelligence test that works across different species is incredibly difficult. For example, humans are impressed by someone who is quick at mental arithmetic ... but is an ability to do long multiplication a fair way to assess the brainpower of a dolphin ... ?

Hands vs. flippers

We humans are rightly proud of our ability to invent and use tools. But again, is that a fair way to assess other species, given that most household gadgets are tricky to use when you've only got flippers on the ends of your arms?

The golden list

So, in an effort to tackle the problem, scientists have come up with a list of abilities that they say can be associated with 'advanced intellectual ability'.

Which is where the mirror test comes in.

Try it yourself

Imagine you've been invited to take part in a (painless and safe) experiment to compare human intelligence with the intelligence of other animals. You accept the invitation. A scientist walks towards you with something in his or her hand. Moments later you feel something damp brush against your cheek. Then you're given a mirror, what do you do?

It's not a trick. You look in the mirror, right?

You study the side of your fact to see if it's got paint on it. You twist your face around to get a good look.

You probably don't smile, Fact is, you know it's 'your' face and that makes it 'ok' to stare. You'd feel quite different if you stepped up to what you thought was a mirror, only to find it was a sheet of glass with someone else's face looking through!

Dolphins and mirrors

In the case of the dolphins what happened was that researchers put non-toxic ink marks on the sides of the dolphins' bodies and then let the dolphins swim up to a mirror.

The dolphins peered at the marks on their sides, angling their bodies to look at them better. This shows they could recognise themselves. That's exciting in itself.

A sense of self

Even more interestingly, the dolphins looked longer at marks on their own sides than at marks on another dolphin. This shows that they 'cared' more about their own bodies than about their neighbours.

If this sounds a tad selfish then that's exactly why it's so exciting to the researchers. One of the signs of a sense of self is that an animal is more concerned about its own existence and its own reality than the existence of its fellow creatures. So far we know of very few species that have this 'sense of self' (apes and humans being the two best known examples).

What's next?

Of course this one piece of evidence will not settle the debate - it's just one more clue to add to the 'big picture'. According to Jeff Weir of the Dolphin Research Institute here in Victoria, the ability to recognise yourself is important, but it doesn't mean we have evidence that dolphins have anything as advanced as human intelligence.

Based on his own experiences with dolphins, which includes ten years of trying to ensure their conversation, he ranks the intelligence of the dolphin somewhere around that of a very smart dog.

They are, he says, the most amazing and special creatures, but our desire to imagine they are 'super-intelligent' reveals more about our own species than it does about these 'smiling ambassadors for the ocean'.

Photo credit: The Dolphin Research Institute


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Written and project managed by Berry Billingsley for the Department of Education