Science Questions

Why do we think dolphins are so clever?

Tue, 29th Sep 2015

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Question

Fiona Morrison asked:

 

I was just wondering about dolphins. They have the stereotype of the most intelligent animal, but what have they done to deserve this title?

 

Thanks :)

Answer

We put Fiona's question to zoologist Max Gray

Bottlenose dolphinMax: - Yes, sure. They're definitely one of the most intelligent animals. Whether or not you can say they're the most intelligent animal, that’s a little bit harder to say. You’ve got chimpanzees, new Caledonian crows. There's a host of animals out there, all of which are very intelligent. 

What dolphins and these other animals have done so to speak to deserve this reputation is they pass a lot of intelligence tests. There are various things in the study of animal behaviour that we used to assess how intelligent animals are. Things like whether or not they can recognise themselves in the mirror, whether or not they can in some way, attribute a state of mind to another animal, be it in the case of dolphins, they can actually attribute emotional states to people.

They communicate with each other. Dolphins have names for each other effectively that can be recognised in the acoustic signals of the clicking sounds that they used to communicate. Dolphins can use tools. Some dolphins use sponges to protect their noses when they go foraging in the sea bottom.

Kat - You're joking.

Max - No.

Kat - They put on a little like sponge?

Max - It’s a dolphin face mask, yeah.

Kat - It’s like a dolphin cycle helmet.

Chris - On their nose. They put them on their nose.

Max - Yes.

Kat - I literally nearly swore for the first time on air... you are joking.

Chris - It wouldn’t be the first time, Kat.

Max - The interesting thing about that is it seems to be the clumsier, less nimble, less adept dolphins that end up doing this. It’s like, “Well, I might injure myself so I’ll just take this sponge with me just in case.”

Chris - They do call it sponging.

Max - They call it sponging, yes.

Kat - That is literally the best thing I've ever heard. Dolphins: clever but clumsy.

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Fiona Morrison asked the Naked Scientists: I was just wondering about dolphins. They have the stereotype of the most intelligent animal, but what have they done to deserve this title? Thanks :) What do you think? Fiona Morrison, Fri, 4th Jul 2008

There was a report of wild dolphins rescuing people that were drowning, apparently they lift them up and this means they know they can't breath under water so humans can't be fish.

There has also been reports of dolphins guarding humans against sharks that are close to them, even attacking the sharks and killing them.

On a BBC wildlife programme an orca or killer whale was filmed playing with a young seal and ultimately allowing it to get back to the shore after nudging it back to land. These are members of the same family.

Why I have mentioned these points rather than the trained interactions between humans and animals as intelligence really is about how the animals think for themselves and investigate and then make a decision that proves to us how intelligent they are, whereas a trained dolphin could be learned to

Why I have mentioned these points rather than the trained interactions between humans and animals as intelligence really is about how the animals think for themselves and investigate and then make a decision that proves to us how intelligent they are, whereas a trained dolphin or orca could be taught to act out tricks for food and this would not tell us much about their ability to think for themselves.

Here in Paignton Devon, Dolphins come to the sides of boats and allow people to touch them and appear to enjoy it. Again an action that they choose to do not one we choose for them.
Andrew K Fletcher, Fri, 4th Jul 2008

Killer Whales are Dolphins !!!

Think of the way that they swim and even kill their prey. rosalind dna, Fri, 4th Jul 2008

But does any of this answer the question? And besides, isn't it a myth that dolphins are gentle creatures that go around looking for a human to befriend and save, aren't they actually quite vicious little buggers? And could the fact that they let people stroke and fondle them actually be because this sexually stimulates the dolphin?

To give a poor answer to the original question:
Good PR and an industry that wants your money. paul.fr, Fri, 4th Jul 2008


Dolphins prevent NZ shark attack 
By Phil Mercer
BBC, Sydney 



The dolphins swam in a tight, defensive circle
A group of swimmers has told how a pod of dolphins protected them from a great white shark off New Zealand's coast.

The lifeguards were training at a beach near Whangarei on the North Island when they were menaced by a 3-metre shark, before the dolphins raced in to help.

The swimmers were surrounded by the dolphins for 40 minutes before they were able to make it safely back to the beach.

Marine biologists say such altruistic behaviour is not uncommon in dolphins.


Lifeguard Rob Howes was in the water with two colleagues and his teenage daughter.

 
It was an uncomfortable experience, as they were circled by a great white shark, which came within a couple of metres.

He said around half a dozen dolphins suddenly appeared and herded the swimmers together. The mammals swam in tight circles to create a defensive barrier as the great white lurked under the surface.

The swimmers said the dolphins were extremely agitated and repeatedly slapped the water with their tails, presumably to try to deter the predator as it cruised nearby.

The drama happened in New Zealand three weeks ago, but only now are the lifeguards telling their story.

It is a day they will never forget, especially for one of the swimmers, who was on her first day as a volunteer.

They have no doubt that the dolphins acted deliberately to protect them.

Researchers have said they are not surprised. A marine biologist insisted that dolphins, which are considered to be one of the most intelligent mammals, "like to help the helpless".

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4034383.stm

That attack shredded his back, literally peeling the skin back, he said, “like a banana peel.” But because Endris’ stomach was pressed to the surfboard, his intestines and internal organs were protected.

The third time, the shark tried to swallow Endris’ right leg, and he said that was actually a good thing, because the shark’s grip anchored him while he kicked the beast in the head and snout with his left leg until it let go.

The dolphins, which had been cavorting in the surf all along, showed up then. They circled him, keeping the shark at bay, and enabled Endris to get back on his board and catch a wave to the shore.
http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/21689083/
Andrew K Fletcher, Sat, 5th Jul 2008

Dolphin Saves Boy's Life





Boy pushed back to his boat after fall





August 30, 2000 - Daily Record - Scotland





A friendly dolphin has saved a teenage boy from drowning.
Non-swimmer Davide Ceci, 14, was within minutes of death when dolphin Filippo came to his rescue.
The friendly 61-stone creature has been a popular tourist attraction off Manfredonia in south-east Italy for two years.
But now he is a local hero after saving Davide from the Adriatic when he fell from his father's boat.
While Emanuele Ceci was still unaware his son had fallen into the waves, Filippo was pushing him up out of the water to safety.
Davide said: "When I realised it was Filippo pushing me, I grabbed on to him."
The dolphin bore down on the boat and got close enough for Davide's father to grab his gasping son.
Davide's mother Signora Ceci said: "It is a hero, it seems impossible an animal could have done something like that, to feel the instinct to save a human life."
Filippo has lived in the waters off Manfredonia since he became separated from a visiting school of dolphins.
Maritime researcher Dr Giovanna Barbieri said: "Filippo seems not to have the slightest fear of humans. I'm not surprised he should have done such a wonderful thing as to save a human."
http://www.eurocbc.org/page158.html

Andrew K Fletcher, Sat, 5th Jul 2008

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