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In the book The Dynamic Human, it is argued by a group of researchers from the University of Adelaide that humans aren’t the brightest crayons in the box. Co-author and research fellow, Dr. Arthur Saniotis, said “For millennia, all kinds of authorities — from religion to eminent scholars — have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom. However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.”

How can this be?! No other animal can think or communicate like a human, so clearly no other species can match our intelligence!

Well, while humans, as a species, are pretty smart, it’s impossible for us to claim the title of “most intelligent” species. After all, we still have many questions left to answer about our own brains, before we can truly compare them to that of another organism.

While primates are often used in studies on animal intelligence because of their similarities to humans, cetaceans are frequently used as research subjects as well. Looking at the brain of a cetacean, it is clear that perhaps dolphins and whales are much more complex than previously thought. Behind the glass of our “favorite” marine-themed amusement parks (we’re looking at you, SeaWorld) lives a complex organism who may have more to think and even say than we tend to believe.

Cetacean Brains Are More Dynamic than You Probably ThinkThe Anatomical Record

Speech Production

The Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the cerebral cortex are located in separate lobes of the brain (frontal and temporal lobes, respectively), but they are connected by their function in speech production and language processing. Most people believe that a human’s ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other animals, but cetaceans may have us beat.

According to a comparison of cetacean to primate brains from Michigan State University, “They have the distinct advantage over us in that their primary sense is the same as their primary means of communication, both are auditory. With primates, the primary sense is visual and the primary means of communication is auditory.”

Communication is so great in cetaceans that there is a strong possibility they are able to project (yes … literally project) an “auditory image” that replicates a sonar message they may receive. The process is a bit confusing, but MSU describes it in this circumstance: “So a dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”

If they are in fact able to do this, there would have to be a natural tendency to break down stylized and abstracted images into words. Meaning, cetaceans, like people, use a series of signifiers to discern the exact objects they want to communicate about. We might say “tree” and think of a picture of a tree in our minds, but cetaceans can skip this step by simply projecting the image to other cetaceans.

Not fascinating enough? Well did you know that, with several sound producing organs, cetaceans are capable of conveying and receiving “20 times the amount of information as we can with our hearing”? This surpasses the amount of information we can perceive based on vision (a human’s primary sense).

Still Think Humans are the Most Intelligent Animals? Here's Why Whales and Dolphins Have us Beat


Have you ever been so happy that you feel like you can conquer anything the world throws at ya? Well, you have the limbic system to thank for that. The limbic system is a combination of multiple structures in the brain that deal with emotions and the formation of memories. When it comes to comparing the limbic system of whales to that of humans, we may need to rethink our emotional awareness.

Lori Marino, a neurobiologist who helped co-write “The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans,” finds the limbic system of whales to be the most intriguing part of their brains, as they may be more complex than our own. In her research of killer whales, she found that the limbic system of a whale is “so large it erupts into the cortex in the form of an extra paralimbic lobe.”

Since the lobe merges with the cortex, it is believed that the lobe may create a mixture of both emotional and cognitive thinking. The placement may also suggest that secrets about social communication and self-awareness may also be located in this part of the whale brain.

Still Think Humans are the Most Intelligent Animals? Here's Why Whales and Dolphins Have us Beat

Advanced Cognition

Specialized brain cells called spindle neurons are most often associated with an organism’s ability to “recognize, remember, reason, communicate, perceive, adapt to change, problem solve and understand.”

Though this “advanced ability” is most often associated with organisms that are deemed to be the most intelligent, (*cough* humans *cough*) the truth is that spindle neurons have been isolated in the brains of both whales and dolphins, which suggests that whales do a lot more thinking than previously thought.

Dolphins, for example, have been known to recognize themselves in mirrors, solve problems, follow recipes, and associate a part of their anatomy with that of a human’s (such as when a dolphin waves it’s fin whenever a trainer waves their arm). Recent studies even indicate that dolphins are capable of creating personalized whistles that act as names for individual members of a pod. With this name, dolphins are able to communicate more efficiently while roaming the open seas.

Still Think Humans are the Most Intelligent Animals? Here's Why Whales and Dolphins Have us Beat

Using Our Intelligence for Good

While it appears that cetaceans have incredible abilities to feel emotions, understand complex problems and communicate in ways we can’t even imagine, humans don’t seem to value this. Because we assume we are so smart, we put the other creatures of the world underneath us. Knowing how dynamic cetaceans are, keeping them in glorified bathtubs and forcing them to do tricks for food is insulting and cruel. Could you imagine the pain of living in a small room your entire life and having to do flips to be fed? Sounds like a miserable existence, doesn’t it?

It is far past time that we started to use our intelligence for good to help the plight of cetaceans. Boycotting inhumane establishments, like marine parks (and zoos and circuses), is the first step, but fighting to obtain personhood rights for cetaceans should be next. Check out the incredible work being done by the Nonhuman Rights Project to learn more. Share this post and help educate others about the incredible intelligence of cetaceans!

Graphics by Hannah Williams

Lead image source: Matthew Allen/Flickr

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0 comments on “Still Think Humans are the Most Intelligent Animals? Here’s Why Whales and Dolphins Have us Beat”

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11 Months Ago

Thank you for a lovely article! I recently tried to read similar stuff in National Geographic but couldn`t stand all that brain wash part. So.. Thank You for mentioning aquariums, entertainment and all that part!!! :)

1 Years Ago

Dolphins are great and all, but who\'s at the top of the food chain again? That would be humans. Sorry dolphins, but until you\'re able to fly to the Moon, your "intelligence" means nothing.

30 May 2015

yeah we\'re the smartest that\'s why we are the only species that cages its own kind. as if landing on the moon was any great feat.how about dolphins aren\'t daft enough to invent or be duped into believing fairytales of an afterlife to satiate their egos and alleviate their irrational fear of death, and never built atomic or nuclear weapons to destroy one another,don\'t poison their food chain (though we certainly do) etc etc etc you may want to re evaluate your definition of the word intelligence because simply being able to create advanced machines and technologies doesn\'t equate to brilliance if it only serves as a convoluted medium to destroy one another.you also would have served yourself better to mention advances in the field of technology than one supposed visit to some dusty rock floating in space.

30 May 2015

"advances in the field of medical technology i meant to type".

Ron Paultard
1 Years Ago

Your sensationalist title doesn\'t really have much proof behind it. In other measures of intelligence- such as the Encephalization quotient- some dolphins come close but don\'t quite match the score of a human. I know it\'s more interesting to frame it as you did but it doesn\'t make it true.

1 Years Ago

Hum, I thought this article was great until I read this "keeping them in glorified bathtubs and forcing them to do tricks for food is insulting and cruel."
Well, I chat with trainers in close contact with orcas and dolphins from "Marineland" in Antibes, France (the biggest park of europe) and the previous statement is totally wrong. They don\'t "force" animal to do tricks, they "ask" them, in exchange of food. They NEVER force the animal and yes, sometimes the animal doesn\'t want to do anything for the show. And the park authorities accept it.
The trainer has a very close relatioship with its animal and they love them. They love each other.

So please, don\'t say things like this or at least, try to see what happen outside US...

Arlene Rosenberg
26 Dec 2014

So they have to cooperate if they want to eat, wow, that\'s asking.

Malcolm J. Brenner
1 Years Ago

At last! Maybe some of these researchers would understand the onslaught of weirdness I encountered when I found myself falling in love with a female dolphin in 1971. They are incredibly intelligent, disturbingly self-aware and may be able to utilize modes of communication we only dimly perceive. Keeping them in captivity is inherently morally wrong and a violation of their rights as non-human persons.


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