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How smart are dolphins?

You can't give a dolphin a pencil and ask her to do an IQ test.


Scientists think that dolphins may be smart because of their big brains, their social nature and the way they behave. Quite how smart is difficult to say, and what dolphins may think of as smart might be quite different to what humans think of as intelligence.


Here is just some indicators of dolphin intelligence:


The Mirror Test: Dolphins seem to have a sense of self-awareness that most other animals do not, for example using the mirror test.



In Hunting: Dolphins think up new techniques for hunting, including creating mud rings, acqua-planing, and even cooperating with humans. These innovative techniques suggest that dolphins may think creatively about how to solve problems in a manner similar to humans. 


What's on your Mind? Some studies have tested whether dolphins can understand the intention of other minds. In other words, can the figure out what another dolphin or human wants from gestures or other indicators?


Humans understand gestures like pointing because when we see someone pointing, we look where they are pointing to in order to figure out what they mean. If dolphins can do so, they can recognise other minds, and that may be an indicator of higher intelligence.


Scientist Lou Hereman taught dolphins Ake and Phoenix gestures as a sort of basic language. Most o fthe time the trainers would use the gestures, but sometimes the trainers would simply point at an object instead and then use the command 'fetch'.


Ake and Phoenix did well when the trainer was pointing, even when the object was further away or if there were other objects nearby. This skill is all the more striking because unlike humans, dolphins don't have arms and aren't used to pointing gestures in the same way.


In another experiment dolphins were able to demonstrate that they understood when the trainer simply looked at an object for them to fetch; a sort of 'gaze' pointing. 


The Lost Toolkit: Scientist Rachel Smolker of the Monkey Mia Project in Australia tells of how she lost a tool kit from a boat in a storm. About a week later a dolphin called Holly found the toolkit and dragged back to Rachel, who hadn't even thought about trying to find it again. This suggests that Holly put herself into the shoes of Rachel, to think what was important for the human.


Malia and Hou: Karen Pryor describes an intriguing episode at one of the shows of the Sea Life Park. Two dolphins called Malia and Hou, had different routines to perform in the show. Neither had been trained to perform the other's routine, though Mali could see Hou perform and the other way round.


One day, when Malia's gate was opened, the dolphin came out and did everything required; back jump, corkscrew and so on, but in the wrong sequence and in a very agitated way.


The second dolphin came out and performed the sequence though in a nervous and excitable way.


It was only afterward that Karen and the trainers realised that Malia had accidentally been put in Hou's enclosure, and Hou in Malia's. Yet each dolphin, realising what the other was supposed to do, improvised and did it anyway. Malia and Hou didn't just do what they'd been trained to do; they realised there was  problem thought about how to solve it.


Dolphins needing help: Wild dolphins have been reported approaching divers for help, having apparently realised that that human had the skills they needed to solve their problem.


Are dolphins the smartest? But are dolphins the only non-humans that demonstrate this kind of intelligence? Not only great apes, but birds like crows and parrots are able to solve relatively complex problems (see the video).


Dolphins may not be the only smart animals we share the planet with.


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