Smartest in the ocean: the dolphin

Posted on Mar 30, 2012 in Mind and senses

Smartest in the ocean – The bottlenose dolphin

We still have so much to learn about these fascinating, social and communicative creatures. As this BBC Planet Earth clip reveals, they’re incredibly adaptable. Here  they invent a unique technique for catching fish that would otherwise remain tantalisingly out of reach. Such adaptability is a key sign of intelligence.


How intelligent? – A high EQ

One broad measure of intelligence is the “encephalisation quotient (EQ): the ratio of brain size to body size. From the table, you can see the bottlenose dolphin’s EQ ranks highly. Yet this is a crude guide and ultimately, most experts agree that it is behaviour, not structure, that is the true measure of intelligence within a species.


© The Pugfather - flickr

Smart feeding strategies – Tail whacking

In an estuary off the coast of Brazil, tucuxi dolphins are regularly seen capturing fish by “tail whacking”. They flick a fish up to 9 metres with their tail flukes and then pick the stunned prey from the water surface.


© Peter Schinck -

Smart feeding strategies – Shrimp stealing

In Galveston Bay, Texas, certain female bottlenose dolphins and their young follow shrimp boats. The dolphins swim into the shrimp nets to take live fish and then wriggle out again - a skill requiring expertise to avoid entanglement in the fishing nets.


© Zest-pk - flickr

Expert toolmakers – Weapons & safety equipment

Dolphins have been observed coaxing a reluctant moray eel out of its crevice by killing a scorpion fish and using its spiny body to poke at the eel. While others have been seen placing sponges over their snouts, which protects them from the spines of stonefish and stingrays as they forage over shallow seabeds.


© Andreas HJ - flickr

Smart talkers – Clicks, whistles & gestures

Dolphins use a variety of clicks and whistles to keep in touch. Some species have a signature whistle, which, like a name, is a unique sound that allows other dolphins to identify it. Dolphins also communicate using touch and body postures. Currently we lack the evidence to say dolphins have a language - but we haven’t studied them enough to know for sure.


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