How Smart is a Dolphin? 

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Dolphins are some of the most sophisticated aquatic animals, known to be the “brainiacs” of the sea. As dolphins’ brains have evolved over time, adapting to living in different environments, humans have come to recognize the immense intelligence of dolphins. But just how smart is a dolphin actually? 

How Can We Measure How Smart Dolphins Actually Are? 

It is hard to decipher how smart dolphins are because we can’t measure their intelligence in correlation to our own. We can’t measure their intelligence with tests in the same way we measure humans because dolphins have a completely different way of communicating. However, scientists have found some ways to measure dolphins’ intelligence. 

Brain Size 

When measuring the question “How Smart is a Dolphin?” it is important to consider the brain size. When trying to measure how smart a dolphin is, you can look at its large brain size. Dolphins are second to humans in brain-to-body ratio. This large brain size means that dolphins live long lives, are sociable, and have complex behaviors. It also means that young dolphins take time, like humans, to grow up, mature, and become independent of their mothers. 

One critical aspect of the dolphins’ brain is the section dedicated to echolocation, meaning dolphins can “see” with sonar as sound travels better in water than light. These echolocation skills are incredible, allowing dolphins to hunt in murky water. Dolphins can also assess other dolphins’ pregnancies along with eavesdropping on the echolocating clicks of other dolphins to decipher what they are looking at. This section of the dolphins’ brains makes them very smart in a way that does not apply to humans whatsoever. 

Dolphin brains also contain spindle neurons which are associated with abilities such as recognizing, communicating, perceiving, adapting to change, problem-solving, and understanding. Also, the part of a dolphin’s brain that processes emotions is more complex than humans’ meaning that not only are dolphins deep thinkers but they are complex, smart beings. 

Also Read: How Smart is an Elephant? Here’s the Fascinating Science Behind These Animals


Dolphins swimming in pods together.
Credit: Unsplash

It is often said that a being’s ability to play measures its intelligence. So, when asking the question “how smart is a dolphin?” a dolphin’s ability to play is an important factor to consider. 

Pods of dolphins can often be seen leaping, tumbling, back-flipping, and spinning together. There is often no specific reason for this behavior other than enjoying social interaction with other dolphins. This enjoyment in play and social time displays an intelligent and highly developed brain that requires time to relax and let off steam with others. 

Sense of Self 

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Being able to recognize yourself in a mirror is a measure of intelligence and a rare skill that only a handful of species are capable of. However, dolphins completely have this ability. Dolphins begin to recognize themselves at around seven months old whereas human children don’t until 12 months and chimpanzees at two years old. 

When looking in a mirror, dolphins will inspect the different parts of their body that they are not able to see on their own, indicating the self-awareness of an extremely intelligent species. 


Credit: Unsplash

Experts have learned that dolphins are incredibly communicative, contributing to their high intelligence. Dolphins have sophisticated and interactive ways of communicating. In fact, dolphins are known to be very chatty creatures, humans just don’t know what they are actually saying to each other.  

Experts have also realized that dolphins use distinct names to identify others, often individual whistles to call each other. Mothers teach their babies their names and use them for their entire lives. No other creatures other than humans are known to use names like this, proving dolphins’ advanced intelligence. 

Read More: What is the Rarest Animal in the World? 

Reframing the Concept of Species’ Intelligence 

These many outstanding aspects of dolphins’ intelligence force us to reconsider the traditional notion that humans are the most intelligent and developed species and that no other species can think like us. The evidence proves that dolphins are equally intelligent and complex to us.

 In fact, dolphins’ communication may be superior to our own. There is a strong possibility that dolphins can communicate by sending a sound image to other dolphins. So, dolphins have the ability to communicate in ways that are unfathomable to humans. 

So, when asking the question “how smart is a dolphin?” just know, they are really smart, maybe even smarter than you. 

Kathryn is a rising junior at Vassar College, double majoring in English and Media Studies. As a writer and... More about Kathryn Carvel

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