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Studying mammals: Return to the water
Studying mammals: Return to the water

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2.7 … and becoming more intelligent

Intelligence is a useful commodity: it can help an animal to make sense of its environment and cope with the demands of social behaviour (including courtship and competition). Hunters tend to be relatively intelligent, and otters, pinnipeds and cetaceans, for example, share a playful curiosity that is characteristic of animals that catch other animals for a living. Some especially extravagant claims have been made for the intelligence of the toothed whales, largely because these animals use communication and cooperation to maximise the efficiency of their hunting behaviour.

Activity 2

Watch the TV programme from 32.50-35.38, which shows the hunting behaviour of the bottlenose dolphins off the coast of South Carolina and the 'bait-balling' of the common dolphins in the open ocean. Also reread LoM pp. 206-208. Note down any aspects of the animals' behaviour that strike you as intelligent.

Before you watch, it might be an idea to spend a few minutes thinking about what 'intelligent' means. But be warned, it's by no means an easy concept to pin down.


I noted the following points:

  • Strategy and tactics: the dolphins identify a suitable target (a shoal of fish) and plan ahead (edging the shoal close to the bank or the surface of the water).

  • Teamwork and cooperation: working together to achieve a common goal.

  • The use of communication to coordinate behaviour.

  • The adoption of specific roles within the group (the 'spy-hopper', for example [p. 207]).

  • The use of judgement to select the right option at the right time.

Some of the words I noted down certainly imply intelligence - 'planning', 'communication', 'judgement' - but it is difficult to define or measure intelligence in ourselves, let alone other animals. The behaviour of the dolphins certainly seems as sophisticated as the hunting strategies of lions or African hunting dogs, for example, but is there any evidence that they are more intelligent than that?

Well, cetaceans have large brains relative to body size, with folds in the part of the brain responsible for complex functions, the cerebral cortex, that are reminiscent of those in primates. They use sound in a number of sophisticated ways and engage in subtle social interactions that may be mediated by a simple form of 'language'. Dolphins can be trained to respond to commands and perform tricks - and they can develop and vary these routines and imitate each other's behaviour. On the other hand, the large brain and the folding of the cerebral cortex may be simply a function of the size of these animals, or a consequence of the need to produce and process such complex sounds. And many other animals can be trained to perform tricks, including pigeons and other species not generally regarded as particularly bright.

One behaviour that has caused some people to question the intelligence of cetaceans is a tendency to strand themselves in large numbers on beaches and, even more puzzling, to strand themselves again if they are helped back into the water. The reasons for this phenomenon are poorly understood. It could be a response to distress calls, a form of mass panic, or the result of damage to the echolocation system caused by disease, parasites or pollution. As with so many aspects of cetacean behaviour, the honest answer is that we just don't know.

One difficulty in interpreting cetacean behaviour may be our tendency to describe and discuss intelligence in terms of the way we, as humans, interact with each other and our surroundings. The arrogance of attempting to judge the intelligence of other species by our own standards was used to comic effect by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than the dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.

(D. Adams (2002, first published 1979) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Picador)