How Smart Are Dolphins Really?


Most people are aware that dolphins are intelligent animals. We know that they can perform tricks and keep a crowd entertained with their impressive ability to jump through hoops and work side-by-side with humans. But, how smart are dolphins really? The scientific community has been asking this question for decades and have come to some astounding results. We’re starting to see dolphins as people too, not just as animals to exploit for monetary gain. 

When it comes to measuring intelligence, scientists agree that it is a difficult task, even when it comes to human intelligence. When measuring intelligence in dolphins, scientists have been able to use different testing methods to figure out how intelligent and aware they really are.

Dolphins are highly regarded as being one of the smartest animals in the world, second only to humans. They are capable of intense problem-solving, complex social group interactions, self recognition, and language recognition. 

The Dolphin Brain

55 million years ago, the first land mammals to enter the water were deemed as large predators with sharp teeth. A change in the ocean temperature 35 million years ago drastically reduced the amount of prey. The remaining group that survived the shift were called odontocetes which later evolved to become cetaceans, a group of 86 marine species that dolphins belong to. Cetaceans were smaller with less teeth but had highly evolved brains which helped them form social groups as well as use echolocation which helped them navigate and communicate.

The size and complexity of dolphin brains are the largest indicators of their intelligence, combined with their ability to form complex social groups. Their brain size is so large compared to the average for their body size - called their encephalization quotient - is second only to humans.

However, their brains have evolved quite differently than humans and great apes. While their brain is divided into two hemispheres, similar to humans, they have four lobes, unlike humans who have three. In our brains, our senses are split, whereas in dolphins they are all hosted in the fourth lobe. Because all of their senses are in one lobe, many believe that dolphins are able to make immediate and complicated judgements - some people even believe that this ability goes beyond the scope of what humans are capable of. 

Dolphins have a smaller frontal lobe than humans and great apes, but their ability to problem-solve and plan for the future is still highly impressive. Furthermore, they also have a very complex neocortex - the part of the brain that is associated with processing auditory and visual information, as well as problem solving, self awareness, and many other traits that we associate with intelligence.  

Researchers have also found Von Economo neurons, which in humans are related to emotions, social cognition, and “theory of mind” - the ability to sense what others are thinking. Dolphins have a well developed paralimbic system, which may play a role in the complex, intimate, and emotional bonds that exist within dolphin communities. 

Dolphins have amazing abilities 

The dolphin brain has evolved to be so complex today because their survival was dependent on their ability to form social networks that hunt, ward off rivals, and raise offspring together. They have the ability to pass down knowledge from generation to generation and can even teach other adult dolphins new tricks. 

Dolphins are one of the few animals on Earth to pass “the mirror test”. They can recognize themselves in mirrors which indicates self-awareness. They also showed signs of metacognition, or the ability to recognize their own thoughts. One study showed that dolphins were able to recognize whether sounds they heard were the same, different, or unsure. Their ability to show uncertainty when listening to more complicated sounds showed that they are aware of what they know and how confident they feel about that knowledge.   

Dolphins have also shown the ability to use tools when they hunt. One group of dolphins off the coast of Australia, nicknamed the dolphin sponge club, has learned to cover and protect their rostums with sea sponges when rooting in sharp coral. 

Dolphins have also been able to show empathy and compassion for not only their own community, but crossing the species barrier to other animals as well. They have been known to help other injured animals and have even brought drowning humans to the surface to help them breathe. One of the most amazing traits of dolphins is that like us, dolphins mourn their dead. 

Dolphins are people too

After reviewing all of the evidence, we can begin to view dolphins in a different way. They are highly intelligent, emotional, and evolved animals capable of creating complex bonds with each other and with humans. Now we can begin to ask why humans are still hunting and killing dolphins for meat. 

If dolphins can be considered to be similar to people, shouldn’t we be treating them like people? Should we be keeping them hostage in aquariums and using them as entertainment? The very things that make dolphins so captivating to humans also makes it unethical to keep them in captivity. In the wild, dolphins are free and have a home range of 100 square kilometers. In captivity, they have one-ten thousandth of 1% of this. 

The question of the intelligence of dolphins has been answered. The new question begs, can humans empathize enough to treat them fairly and set them free?