Just How Smart Are Dolphins?
Dolphins are one of the most beautiful and intriguing animals on the planet—and among the most intelligent. But exactly how smart are dolphins? These marine animals are capable of complex social interactions: They work together, solve problems, show empathy, share language, and even have personal names. Not only can they learn new information and skills, but they can pass that knowledge on to other dolphins, including their young. How intelligent are dolphins, and what makes them so smart? This guide will dive into these questions to better understand the mind and world of one of the most intelligent creatures.
How Smart Are Dolphins, Really?
Are dolphins smart? Definitely. Dolphins are known around the world for their playfulness and intelligence. Research has shown that dolphins can solve problems, mirror behavior, learn new skills, and teach those skills to others. Different groups of dolphins develop their own language and ways to communicate, and they pass these forms of communication down through generations.
Dolphins are one of the few species in the world that pass the Mirror Test: They recognize themselves in a mirror, showing that they have a physical self-awareness. Some dolphin species give their young distinct whistles—their names—that they use to identify themselves throughout their lives. Like humans, dolphins show empathy for those who are hurt or in pain—there are several accounts of dolphins rescuing drowning humans—and they mourn the loss of a loved one.
Complex communication skills and social relationships mean that dolphins can work together to solve problems. For example, a group of dolphins near Florida is known for a unique way to catch fish: One dolphin kicks up mud, while another gives a signal to the other dolphins, who line up to catch the fish. This sort of arrangement requires intentional planning and corporation. Dolphins can even work together with humans: In Brazil, India, and Myanmar, dolphins fish with humans, rounding up fish close to shore and signaling to the waiting fishermen who cast their nets while the dolphins snatch up the fish that spill out of the nets.
What Makes Dolphins So Smart?
The survival of dolphins over the years has depended heavily on their ability to work together to hunt, ward off predators, and protect their offspring. Dolphins have evolved over thousands of generations to have large, complex brains.
Are Dolphins Smarter Than Humans?
While dolphins possess advanced communication and cognitive skills, they do not have the same level of intelligence as humans. Like humans, they can manipulate their surroundings for their benefit—for example, one group of dolphins in Australia wear sponges on their rostrums to protect their snouts from scrapes while hunting in the coral. But unlike humans, they do not create or use tools, nor do they engage in structured conversations.
How Big is a Dolphin’s Brain?
The intelligence of dolphins can be credited to the large size of their brains. In fact, the ratio of brain size to body size in dolphins is second only to that in humans. The dolphin brain weighs about 1600 grams. A larger brain means more neurons are available to create pathways, learn skills, and build memory.
Compared with humans, dolphins have smaller frontal lobes, which are the part of the brain that controls memory, problem-solving, and communication. They do have a very well-developed paralimbic system, which enables them to process emotions and may play a role in the complex social relationships within a dolphin community. Some scientists believe that the dolphin paralimbic system may be more developed than that of humans. Dolphin brains also have a number of specialized brain cells called spindle neurons, which help with abilities such as recognizing and remembering, along with reasoning skills, adaptation, and communication.
Meet a Dolphin for Yourself!
Dolphins are truly remarkable creatures. They are playful, curious, and intelligent. Their advanced social skills mean that they enjoy interacting with and build relationships with humans. You can read as much about dolphins as you want, but one of the best ways to truly appreciate these marine mammals is to meet one yourself.
At Cabo Adventures, we provide opportunities for guests to interact with dolphins at Cabo Dolphins, a center dedicated to the research and rehabilitation of marine mammals native to Mexico, including dolphins. Each tour is guided by an expert in the behavior and science of these creatures.
If you’ve dreamed of meeting a dolphin, your trip to Cabo is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make that dream a reality. Jump in the water and swim with the dolphins yourself in our Dolphin Signature Swim adventure, or focus on play in a shallow lagoon in the Dolphin Encounter tour. For even more exposure to dolphins, you’ll love the Trainer for a Day program, which takes you behind the scenes of dolphin care and training.
These dolphins are a joy to be around. Check out our Cabo Adventures dolphin encounters to find out more about how you can interact with the planet’s most intelligent animals.
The Dolphin Center at Cabo Adventures has earned the Humane Certification, granted by American Humane, the most recognized non-profit organization worldwide focused on the welfare of animals under human care. Click here for more information.