A Whale Lot of Knowledge

A Whale Lot of Knowledge

Have you ever wondered how smart whales are? This week we’ll look at cetaceans’ intelligence. Cetaceans include 86 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Intelligence is defined by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) as “the ability to learn and apply knowledge; to understand new or challenging situations and the ability to think abstractly.” We know that the biggest brain in the world belongs to the sperm whale and that the proportional size of the brain to the body is similar to humans! Let’s take a brief look at the cognitive and emotional intelligence that a cetacean brain displays.

Strength in Numbers

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are all social marine mammals. Their ability to form large family groups and social structures shows the capacity for intelligence in the cetacean group. The humpback whale has been known to exhibit a group behavior called bubble net feeding. They learned how to blow bubbles and create a net to bring fish to the surface to feed. This requires practice, trial and error, group communication, and synchronous timing in order to be successful. Additionally, killer whales have been compared to wolves and use a group tactic to take down their prey. This style of cooperative hunting shows their capability for group well being and complex hunting. 

Some dolphins in Florida perform a similar group behavior with mud and sand to achieve the same goal while hunting. This hunting is passed down to their offspring and thus learned, taught, and taught again generation after generation.

Dolphins exhibit empathy and have the ability to grieve, be altruistic, or even help humans in danger.  They have been known to spin or twirl out of the water “just for fun,” and not for any sort of specific biological benefit.

Big Brains

The size of their brain allows for echolocation, social structure, and adaptability for a changing environment. There is even an entire section in a dolphin’s brain devoted to echolocation. Echolocation is the ability to detect and locate objects using sounds. Cetacean brains also have spindle neurons present. These spindles suggest an advanced ability to communicate, remember, perceive, learn, and reason.  

A dolphin in Australia has utilized sea sponges as a cover around their beak to protect their face while foraging through tough coral and substrate. 

Dolphins have physical self-awareness because researchers have seen that they recognize themselves in a mirror. Being able to pass the mirror test is extremely uncommon in animals. WDC says, “Besides humans, only bottlenose dolphins, chimpanzees, elephants, and magpies have been shown to recognize themselves in a mirror.”


Talk It Out!

Most cetaceans also utilize several sounds and vocalizations to communicate. Through hydrophones and sound studies, scientists have been able to learn more about their communication styles and importance. Dolphins will often show their young how to vocalize and differentiate. Additionally, dolphins will often create unique whistles or sounds as “names” to identify individuals in their pod. 

These creatures are incredible, and we should do everything in our power to raise awareness for their species and their habitats. 

Written By:

Bailey Higa







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