The bottlenose dolphin, playful, sociable, free spirited and above all; smart. Tursiops truncatus has entered the popular consciousness so completely that sorting fact from fiction is nothing short of the intellectual equivalent of climbing Kilimanjaro. This animal has attained mythical proportions without any brain enhancement. But just how smart is flipper?
Bottlenose dolphin species inhabit almost all oceans of the world. Because of its coastal habits and its apparent friendliness, the bottlenose dolphin regularly comes into contact with people and it is this fact alone that perhaps explains the many stories worldwide about the species.
Human Relationships with Dolphins
Human history and culture is littered with tales of often intimate encounters between humans and dolphins. There are dozens of accounts of dolphins saving hapless souls from potential drowning or near fatal shark attacks. Many countries have their own friendly solitary dolphin such as Funghi in Dingle Bay, Ireland; playful and ever protective of its human companions.
Dr Lindsay Porter, of WWF Hong Kong’s Dolphin Project, believes such interactions show more than just a fun loving nature on the part of the dolphin. “Such encounters suggest a desire to learn about their environment and others in it without obvious direct benefit to themselves”. Apart, of course, from the social contact they clearly crave. There is no doubt that dolphins are highly sociable, enjoying, and at times seeking out the company of humans.
In the 1960s John Lilly, an American biologist, claimed that the large brained bottlenose dolphin was more intelligent than humans, claiming that humans and dolphins would be able to a talk to each other. Such claims fired popular imagination, although many said that the work was unsupported by any real scientific evidence. Because an animal has a large brain, said critics, is it really more intelligent? Lilly’s basic theory was “the bigger the computer, the greater its power” and the modern myth of the super smart dolphin had been born.
Continued research into intelligence in the 1970s led to the discovery that dolphins did indeed communicate, but were not capable of talking in any human sense. Instead dolphins, it appeared, communicated through a series of whistles and clicks. More recently scientists have found what appear to be a unique “signature whistle”, amongst individual dolphins, used much like a name in humans. Bottlenose dolphins have been taught to respond to sign language and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror responding in ways that show they posses, what was once believed to be unique to humans; self awareness and knowledge of who they are in the world.
Dolphins have Complex Social Lives
Whatever measurements we use, there remains the basic fact that dolphins have larger brains than their body size would require, according to our own measurements. Why they need such large brains still baffles many scientists. Ben Wilson from the Scottish Association of Marine Science has studied bottlenose dolphins for twenty years and says that dolphin intelligence is a “thorny issue”.
There are theories why these dolphins have such large brains; one is that their highly complex use of sound, for finding food, mates, in navigation and communication necessitates a larger brain to process all the information. The evidence is strong for this; the part of the brain that processes sound is up to 250 larger in dolphins than in humans. Other scientists ascribe the larger brain size to the highly social nature of dolphins. So which is it, sound or sociability?
Ben is hesitant about the sound theory “a bat uses the same level of echolocation and bats have tiny brains. Parrots can talk but they too have small brains” he says. Is it then that the dolphin’s complex social behaviour has influenced brain size? “personally, I think it’s more to do with social manipulation,’ he maintains. By this he means what we humans call social or personal politics; getting what you want out of a situation and being smart enough to know when to cooperate and when to compete. In simple terms who to use and when to use them, a skill humans excel in, and some more than others.
Ben provided other examples to ponder; “you see that sort of brain is needed for making the most of mating opportunities”. He refers to work in Australia on male alliances, where groups of males work together to herd females away from their pod to mate, often in quite aggressive fashion. So the males need to be clear on which individuals they can trust and when they can trust them to help.
It seems we can barely assess intelligence in our own species, how valid is it to assess it in others. What is considered intelligence for us may not be to a dolphin, our yardstick is human and we occupy very different worlds with different requirements of intelligence. So is Flipper smarter than the average mammal? Yes, certainly, but just how intelligent, may never really be known.