Most people agree whales and dolphins are the ‘brainiacs’ of the sea. Over millions of years, their bodies, brains, sensory systems and intelligence have evolved and adapted for living rich and varied lives in water. These are all very different from our own, yet in many ways they are still more like us than you might suspect.
Dolphins are capable of complex problem solving and social interaction. They are one of the smartest animals in the world. Research into the behavior of dolphins in the wild and in captivity has yielded incredible data on the intelligence of these marine mammals. Studies show that dolphins not only have the ability to learn as individuals, but those individuals can then pass their new knowledge onto others. Among the many animals in the world, there are few smarter than dolphins. These amazing marine mammals are capable of impressive problem-solving, social interactions, and using what appears to be a complex communication system.
Studies show dolphins in the wild learning to use tools and passing that knowledge down to further generations. One notable example is that adult dolphins will often attach sponges to their snouts to protect themselves while foraging for food. This skill is passed down from mothers to offspring.
Like humans, dolphins possess the ability to beneficially alter their surroundings, solve problems, and form complex social groups. However, dolphins do not display indicators of tool usage, problem solving, and structured discussion to the degree that humans do.
Dolphins live in complex social groups and have evolved to have highly developed brains. These factors are the largest contributors to their intelligence. Dolphins have relatively large and complex brains that developed over thousands of generations. Presumably, dolphin brains evolved to meet the needs of their environment. Intelligence and highly involved social interaction became the means of survival for dolphins, and their brains adapted accordingly.
Relative to body size, dolphin brains among the largest in the animal kingdom —larger than even those of chimpanzees. Dolphin brains typically weigh about 1600 grams. This makes dolphins second only to humans in brain-to-body weight ratio. However, dolphin brains are quite different from the brains of humans and great apes. Dolphins have much smaller frontal lobes — but they still have an impressive flair for solving problems and a built-in capacity to plan for the future. Unlike primates, dolphins process language and auditory information in the temporal lobes, located on their brain’s flanks. Studies also show that dolphins process auditory and visual information in different parts of the neocortex. Dolphins also have an extremely well-developed and defined paralimbic system, which is responsible for processing emotions. Many scientists hypothesize that dolphins' highly developed paralimbic systems play a large role in the intimate and complex social and emotional bonds that exist within dolphin communities.
Based on current metrics for intelligence, dolphins are one of the most intelligent animals in the world. While intelligence is difficult to quantify in any organism, many studies suggest that dolphins are second only to us humans in smarts. Using brain size as a barometer, dolphins come in second only to humans in brain-to-body size ratio. However, dolphins also excel intelligence-based tests. Research shows that dolphins mirror self-recognition, cultural learning, comprehension of symbol-based communication systems, and an understanding of abstract concepts — comparable to chimpanzees and other great apes.