The Intelligence of Dolphins | Teen Ink

The Intelligence of Dolphins

April 29, 2018
By lexiehagen BRONZE, Towson, Maryland
lexiehagen BRONZE, Towson, Maryland
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Dolphins; they're cute, squeaky balls of fun but they could take over the world one day. We tend to study primates when comparing human emotions and intelligence to animals because they are so similar to us, but cetaceans, or dolphins and orcas, are actually much more intelligent than expected. The general make up of a dolphin brain is surprisingly similar to a humans. A dolphin's brain is a lot larger than a human brain. Science Magazine claims that "a dolphin brain weighs 1600 grams and a human brain weighs 1300 grams" (Grimm).


Encephalization is "the amount of brain mass compared to an animal's total body mass. Scientists claim that this ratio is proportional to an animal's level of intelligence."  A dolphin's brain to body ratio is larger than primates. It is lower than a humans encephalization, but this still brings cetaceans into second place as the most encephalized beings on Earth. Dolphins also have a complex neocortex. A neocortex is defined as "the part of the cerebral cortex concerned with sight and hearing in mammals."  This is the outside, wrinkly part of our brains. The more wrinkly it is, the more surface area it has. This part of the brain is also in charge of problem solving and social awareness. With this part of the brain, dolphins solve puzzles, remember routines and commands, use tools, and they can even understand full human sentences. Since they are socially aware, they are also able to recognize themselves in the mirror and feel complex emotions such as joy and love. The dolphin neocortex has more wrinkles but is thinner than a human brain. Since dolphins evolved in water and humans evolved on land, our neocortex has developed differently. Marine life neurologist, Lori Morino says, "it represents a different neurological scheme for intelligence. It has many of the same sorts of functions, but they're designed differently. The whole map of the brain is different" (Foundry). Dolphins have different ways of processing sensory stimuli, probably because they echolocate, and we don't, but in terms of memory, social life, and behavior, humans and dolphins are very similar.  Dolphins can also talk to each other like humans do. Humans communicate mostly through sound. We listen to sound waves and have developed certain sounds for certain words. And so have dolphins. Dolphins develop a unique whistle for themselves, kind of like a name. They use this whistle to communicate to their pods where they are and depending on the tone of their whistle, this might communicate how they are feeling. Dolphins will also learn to copy other dolphin's whistles to get their attention, just like how we call out our friend's names when we want their attention. A recent study conducted by Michigan State University predicts that dolphins are also able to project images to each other through sonar messages. If they are thinking of a fish, instead of trying to explain the fish like a human would, "they are simply able to project their thought of a fish and another dolphin will be able to see exactly what the other is thinking" (Montgomery). In the study, a man was placed in a pool with a dolphin. The dolphin used echolocation to identify the man. Advanced audio equipment was able to record the dolphin's sonar and it was transferred into an image "through a water-based technology called CymaScope (Science Shows). Scientists were able to see what a dolphin sees when it echo locates. But dolphins have been observed transferring their sonar to other dolphins, which is how the assumption that dolphins can send holographic images to each other was started.

Lastly, dolphins are incredibly socially and emotionally intelligent creatures. Orcas and dolphins have close-knit families. Cetaceans are very close to their calves and calves usually stay with their mothers for life. Dolphins have even been seen "alloparenting," which is like babysitting. They take turns looking after the younger dolphins of their pod, even if the baby isn't theirs. Alloparenting is a unique behavior to see in animals and shows a high level of social intelligence.  Different pods also have different qualities. Orcas (which are still a type of dolphin) have different qualities between different pods. An orca pod from Washington doesn't have the same language, customs, diet, or even markings as a killer whale pod from Alaska, similar to how humans from different countries are.  For example, orcas from Vancouver behave very intimately with each other and they will have long sessions where they will "high five, leap out of the water and be in physical contact with each other for a long period of time" (Understanding). The orcas from British Columbia do not behave like this at all and will instead have long sessions where they will scratch themselves on the sand for long periods of time, a behavior unique to their pod. Different pods also have specific diets. The orcas near the shore in British Colombia tend to eat salmon while the ones further in the ocean prefer seals. The orcas near the coast of California eat sharks. The orcas near Antarctic eat penguins and other whales. Another amazing thing about dolphins is they can even feel emotions humans will never be able to feel. MRI scans have discovered that orcas and dolphins have an enlarged part of their brains where they feel emotions. Meaning that the emotions they feel, although similar to ours, are a lot more powerful. This means that socially and emotionally, cetaceans are a lot more intelligent than humans.

In conclusion, dolphins are incredibly intelligent and have gone unnoticed for many years. From their highly complex neocortex that allows them to have incredible problem-solving skills, to their deep capacity for language and speech, to their intelligence in social and emotional skills, these animals are very similar to humans. Luckily, the only thing stopping them from taking over the world is their lack of thumbs! 


Works Cited
Foundry, Watson. "How Smart Is a Dolphin?" Earth in Transition, 22 Jan. 2016
Grimm, David, and Greg Miller. "Is a Dolphin a Person?" Science Mag , 21 Feb. 2010,
Montgomery, Madison. "Still Think Humans Are the Most Intelligent Animals? Here's Why Whales and Dolphins Have Us Beat." One Green Planet, 7 July 2017,
"Science Shows Dolphins Communicate Holographically." UPLIFT, 20 Dec. 2016,

"Understanding Orca Culture."  Smithsonian Institution, 1 Aug. 2011,

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