We often hear that whales, dolphins, and porpoises are as intelligent as humans, maybe even more so. Are they really that smart? There is no question that cetaceans are among the most intelligent of animals. Dolphins, killer whales, and pilot whales in captivity quickly learn tricks. The military has trained bottlenose dolphins to find bombs and missile heads and to work as underwater spies.
This type of learning, however, is called conditioning. The animal simply learns that when it performs a particular behavior, it gets a reward, usually a fish. Many animals, including rats, birds, and even invertebrates, can be conditioned to perform tricks. We certainly don't think of these animals as our mental rivals. Unlike most other animals, however, dolphins quickly learn by observations and may spontaneously imitate human activities. One tame dolphin watched a diver cleaning an underwater viewing window, seized a feather in its beak, and began imitating the diver—complete with sound effects! Dolphins have also been seen imitating seals, turtles, and even water-skiers.
Given the seeming intelligence of cetaceans, people are always tempted to compare them with humans and other animals. Studies on discrimination and problem-solving skills in the bottlenose dolphin, for instance, have concluded that its intelligence lies "somewhere between that of a dog and a chimpanzee." Such comparisons are unfair. It is important to realize that intelligence is a very human concept and that we evaluate it in human terms. After all, not many people would consider themselves stupid because they couldn't locate and identify a fish by its echo. Why should we judge cetaceans by their ability to solve human problems?
Both humans and cetaceans have large brains with an expanded and distinctively folded surface, the cortex. The cortex is the dominant association center of the brain, where abilities such as memory and sensory perception are centered. Cetaceans have larger brains than ours, but the ratio of brain to body weight is higher in humans. Again, direct comparisons are misleading. In cetaceans it is mainly the portions of the brain associated with hearing and the processing of sound information that are expanded. The enlarged portions of our brain deal largely with vision and hand-eye coordination. Cetaceans and humans almost certainly perceive the world in very different ways. Their world is largely one of sounds, ours one of sights.
Contrary to what is depicted in movies and on television, the notion of "talking" to dolphins is also misleading. Although they produce a rich repertoire of complex sounds, they lack vocal cords and their brains probably process sound differently from ours. Bottlenose dolphins have been trained to make sounds through the blowhole that sound something like human sounds, but this is a far cry from human speech. By the same token, humans cannot make whale sounds. We will probably never be able to carry on an unaided conversation with cetaceans.
As in chimpanzees, captive bottlenose dolphins have been taught American Sign Language. These dolphins have learned to communicate with trainers who use sign language to ask simple questions. Dolphins answer back by pushing a "yes" or "no" paddle. They have even been known to give spontaneous responses not taught by the trainers. Evidence also indicates that these dolphins can distinguish between commands that differ from each other only by their word order, a truly remarkable achievement. Nevertheless, dolphins do not seem to have a real language like ours. Unlike humans, dolphins probably cannot convey very complex messages.
Observations of cetaceans in the wild have provided some insights on their learning abilities. Several bottlenose dolphins off western Australia, for instance, have been observed carrying large cone-shaped sponges over their beaks. They supposedly use the sponges for protection against stingrays and other hazards on the bottom as they search for fish to eat. This is the first record of the use of tools among wild cetaceans.
Instead of "intelligence," some people prefer to speak of "awareness." In any case, cetaceans probably have a very different awareness and perception of their environment than do humans. Maybe one day we will come to understand cetaceans on their terms instead of ours, and perhaps we will discover a mental sophistication rivaling our own