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How smart is a dolphin, or a seal, or an otter for that matter?  How can we test for animal intelligence?  This week we delve into marine mammal intelligence: their learning abilities, self-awareness and tool use. Here we cover some of the highlights of that work. 

One thing to keep in mind is the question that famed primatologist Frans de Waal asks in his recent book titled, “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”.  It is a fascinating read on knowing how to classify intelligence in species very different from our own, and how amazing and intelligent many species (not just dolphins and primates) are, when you ask them the right questions.

Dolphin Intelligence: Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory

In 1969 Dr. Louis Herman founded the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory (KBMML) in Honolulu, Hawaii.  The research that came out of this lab (over 160 scientific papers!) on dolphin intelligence (with 2 trained dolphins) was ground breaking, and provided so much of what we know today about dolphin intelligence and their ability to learn.  Here are just a few highlights from the work at KBMML.

Dolphins can understand gestural (sign) language (pretty impressive since they don’t have arms/hands, and communicate primarily through sound).  But what’s more remarkable? They can understand up to 5 word sentences and know that word order has meaning (called syntax).  So they know that ‘take the hoop to the ball’ is different from ‘take the ball to the hoop’.  They can also do something that chimpanzees (the historical top animal species in terms of intelligence) can’t do – dolphins can understand a trainer giving commands on a TV screen on the first try.  Chimpanzees must be trained to do this.  Dolphins know that the flat TV people represent the real people right away. Another thing they can do that chimpanzees can’t? They understand gestural pointing, so if a trainer pointed to a surfboard and then a hoop and signed ‘fetch’, the dolphin would understand that meant take the surfboard to the hoop.

If a trainer tells a dolphin to do something impossible, like ‘take the window (attached to the tank) to the hoop’.  The dolphin knows that is an anomalous sentence, and either stays and stares at the trainer, or does something similar, like taking another object to the hoop.  They never try to move the immovable object, understanding that is impossible.  They can also decipher another type of anomaly, when there are too many words in a sentence like ‘take ball hoop to the person’.  They can decipher that this doesn’t make sense as is, and do something that is a possibility from those words like, ‘take ball to the person’ or ‘take hoop to the person’. This shows they have an intrinsic knowledge of grammar structure, and this was the 1st demonstration of this for a language tutored animal.

Using echolocation, they can ‘see’ with sound, but also have good eyesight. They can echolocate on an object below water (with their eyes covered), then come up to the surface (where echolocation doesn’t work), look at an object and tell the trainers if the 2 objects match.  Pretty impressive brain power to be able to match 2 very different modes of sensing the world around them.

Finally, they have self-awareness. They can easily repeat a behavior they just did.  What that shows is that they have an understanding of what they themselves just did, their own behavior, vs. that of another dolphin.  Additionally, they are aware of their own body parts when symbolically referenced.  The trainers made unique gestural signals for a body part, and the dolphins were able to follow instructions like, ‘touch the ball with dorsal fin’.

So you can see why in 2006, the Encyclopedia of linguistics stated that he and his team were responsible for “virtually all of what is currently known and accepted” about dolphin’s ability to understand syntax and semantics of artificial language.  There is more, of course, and if you are interested in a great summary of the work, check out this open access article, “What Laboratory Research has Told Us about Dolphin Cognition“, by Louis Herman.

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