Why do we think dolphins are so clever?

29 September 2015



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 :)


We put Fiona's question to zoologist Max Gray

Max: - 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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