How Smart Are Dolphins Really? A Ranking of Dolphins Against Other Animals
Who's really number two?
After humans, dolphins are often regarded as the second-most intelligent animal on the planet. They have a relatively high brain-to-body-size ratio, advanced language and comprehension skills, the capacity to show emotion, and are highly sociable. They’ve also shown excellent cognitive abilities—including individual differentiation and behavior control—and are one of the few creatures known to have passed the benchmark Mirror Self-Recognition Test.
Yes, the dolphin is a one highly sophisticated, razor-sharp creature. But, while they’re undeniably smart, they aren’t the only smart animals out there. So, how do dolphins stack up compared to the world’s other animals?
First, a caveat: “You can’t really rank animals by intelligence because they’re all designed to do different things,” says Justin Gregg, Ph.D., a senior research associate at the Dolphin Communication Project and the author of Are Dolphins Really Smart?. Gregg has deeply researched these deep sea creatures, and seen plenty of ways in which they excel cognitively—and some of the ways the lag behind. Still, he notes, “when we talk about an animal ‘being smart,’ it’s usually when animals are doing things that look like what humans do.”
But, while animal IQ tests aren’t exactly reliable, we can take a look at the full spectrum of available research to come up with some rough comparisons. Here, you’ll get a deep look at the intellectual prowess of 15 other creatures that also have high animal intelligence—defined as the combination of skills and abilities that allow animals to thrive in their respective environments—and see which creature really is the most clever of them all. Besides us, of course. And for a look at these amazing cetaceans in their natural environment, check out these 13 Gorgeous Photos of Dolphins in the Wild.
Chimpanzees have sharper memories than dolphins.
Gregg points out that dolphins are actually distantly related to primates. “A lot of things they do are very primate-like,” he says, “which is unexpected, given how different they are.” But when it comes to behaving and responding to the world in human-like ways—one of the chief ways we can compare the intelligence of animals to one another—dolphins aren’t on the same level as chimps.
One 2007 study found that chimpanzees share about 98 percent of the same DNA as humans. Observations and experiments indicate that chimps are capable of empathy, altruism, and self-awareness, which is where their intelligence is similar to dolphins.
But where they really excel is in cognitive function. Chimps have a profound memory—according to research published in Current Biology, their memory may be even greater than humans—and a relatively advanced knowledge of tools. They’re known to use sticks to catch ants and termites, as a kind of rudimentary form of a fishing (or, rather, bug-catching) pole. And for more whip-smart creatures, check out the 25 Amazing Ways Animals Communicate That You Never Knew About.
Dolphins have stronger memories than elephants.
The sheer size of an elephant’s brain suggests their intelligence must be pretty high. Like dolphins, they’ve been seen consoling and helping others, and there’s even been a recorded instance of one passing the Mirror Test. But the elephant lags behind the dolphin in one crucial area: despite what a familiar saying might have you believe, the elephant forgets—or at least doesn’t remember—quite as well as the dolphin.
Researchers, writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, have declared that dolphins have the longest-lasting memory in the animal kingdom. Reportedly, dolphins can remember whistles of other dolphins for up to 20 years. For comparison, a 2011 test of elephant intelligence and cooperative abilities found them merely “in league with chimpanzees and dolphins as being among the world’s most cognitively advanced animals.”
Still, elephants truly shine when it comes to perception. According to one 2013 study, they have the ability to decipher “ethnicity, gender, and age” in humans, all by listening to acoustic cues from voices.
So, why does this signify intelligence? Well, recognizing predators and judging their threat level is an essential skill for many wild animals. And since, over the millennia, different types of human subgroups have posed various threat levels—a male in his prime might signify higher danger, for instance—this is a highly advanced skill that’s been honed and passed down over generations. And for more fascinating beasts, check out the 30 Toughest Animals You’d Never Want to Meet in a Dark Alley.
Raccoons are better problem-solvers than dolphins.
If you think dolphins are head-and-shoulders more intelligent than these adorable little trash monsters, we just have one question for you: Can a dolphin pick locks?
In a bizarre study conducted at Clark University, back in 1907, raccoons were able to pick complex locks in less than 10 attempts—even after the locks were rearranged or flipped upside-down. More recently, research has shown that raccoons have an impeccable memory, and are able to recall solutions to puzzles for up to three years.
And, in 2017, researchers at the University of Wyoming put raccoons up to the puzzle found in one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Crow and the Pitcher,” where a bird drops rocks into a deep pitcher, to raise the water level to a point where it’s drinkable. Like most of Aesop’s Fables, it’s pure mythos; nothing in scientific literature suggests crows have a robust understanding of water displacement.
The raccoons figured it out in no time.
Octopuses manipulate objects better than dolphins do.
The octopus has the largest brain of any invertebrate, and a whopping three-fifths of its neurons are located in its tentacles. As dolphins have no arms, this really gives octopuses a major leg up. “They’re great at problem-solving tasks and object-manipulation tasks and infamously can escape out of places in impressive ways through problem solving,” says Gregg. A quick venture down the YouTube rabbit hole will turn up videos of octopuses compressing their bulky bodies through a small slit holes, popping the lids off screw-top jars, and even climbing out of tanks to their freedom.
Oh, and then there’s the German aquarium octopus, Otto, who was known to throw rocks at the glass and spray water at overhead lamps to short-circuit bright lights that were bothering him, to the amazement of the aquarium’s staff. And for more fascinating creatures from the depths, meet these 20 Bizarre Sea Creatures That Look Like They’re Not Real.
Dogs understand human language better than dolphins.
Dogs are man’s best friend because they can relate to humans by understanding emotion and showing empathy. But are they as intelligent as dolphins? In some areas, no; in others, yes. Dogs did not make the grade on the self-awareness Mirror Test—something dolphins have mastered—and dolphins appear to be better problem solvers.
However, dogs and dolphins can both use human pointing and eye-direction cues to locate objects in the distance. And one area where dogs outshine every other animal is in language skills. “The most famous case of an animal that learned the largest number of symbols—a thing standing in for another things or word—was dogs,” says Gregg. Chaser, a Border Collie trained by psychologists “came out on top with knowing four or five times more symbols than dolphins or even gorillas.” And for some truly adorable puppers, meet these 50 Dogs So Ugly They’re Actually Cute.
Squirrels are more deceptive than dolphins (but certainly not more intelligent).
Squirrels have a phenomenal memory, and, like dolphins, they can even be deceptive. For starters, they thrive in big urban cities, giving them major street smarts over other animals. According to one Princeton University study, grey squirrels can remember where they’ve buried thousands of nuts, for months at a time, without relying on their sense of smell. And, in a 2010 study, squirrels who knew they were being watched dug fake caches for their nuts, then made a show of digging holes and patting them over with dirt, all while they were really hiding their nuts under their armpits or in their mouth with the ultimate goal of deceiving witnesses until they could find a better hiding spot. Still, while they’re sneakier than dolphins, few researchers would argue they’re smarter.
Pigs are better at video games than dolphins.
“Dolphins have big brains, so we spent time studying them,” says Gregg. “We ignored animals like pigs, because we eat them and turn them into bacon. But, these days, there’s a lot more research that finds they do an awful lot of really complicated stuff not unlike what you see in primates.”
Pigs are highly intelligent beings capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror, like dolphins. Plus, they’re highly sensitive, are able to gain knowledge to help them solve problems later, and—at least in the case of mothers—are very protective, loving, and playful with their little ones. Several studies have shown pigs to be even smarter than dogs and cats, and they are able to solve problems quicker than many primates. Finally, they can also understand abstract representations and even apply the skill to play video games using a joystick. In other words: the time someone pummels you in Smash Bros., you can accurately call them a mean pig!
Parrots have a better grasp of rudimentary concepts than dolphins.
“Parrots are surprisingly strong in their symbol manipulation,” says Gregg. Like dolphins, they’re capable of figuring out complex intellectual concepts that most humans can’t master until kindergarten age. These birds solve puzzles and also understand the concept of cause and effect.
One parrot named Alex was given the same intelligence tests that were also given to dolphins and apes, and he scored as well in many areas—and even better in some. When shown various objects, he was able to named 50. He knew different colors, and could recall numbers up to eight. And he also understood the concepts of “different” and “same.” More generally, African Grey parrots, the Einstein of this species, can learn an impressive number of human words and use them in context to communicate with humans.
Rats, unlike dolphins, have “metacognition.”
The rat’s psychology and emotional intelligence are similar to humans, and that’s why they’re often used for lab experiments. Similar to dolphins, rats also demonstrate altruistic behavior; for example, they’ve been known to free other rats from cages during experiments.
They also possess metacognition, or awareness of one’s own thinking, which is a mental ability seen only in humans and some primates. In fact, they’ve even performed better than some humans on specific cognitive-learning tasks: They can make calculations to help them obtain food from a trap without being caught, and they can process sensorial cues to analyze situations and make their way out of intricate mazes.
Crows and ravens are better problem-solvers than dolphins.
It’s hard to tell for sure whether dolphins or corvids—the bird family of crows and ravens—are smarter, since they exist in such drastically different environments. But one thing’s for sure: these feathered fellas are certainly more cunning. “Crows are really good at manipulating and solving tool-based stuff; they can create tools to solve problems,” says Gregg. “They’re one of the best tool-manufacturing species, and are better than dolphins at that.”
According to reporting by the Sydney Morning Herald, they’re expert problem-solvers and clever toolmakers. They also seem to understand that other birds have minds like theirs, and their decisions often take into account what others might know, want, or intend. They think watchers will know where they’ve hidden food and want to steal it later, so they’ll take their food and sneakily hide it elsewhere, which is known as re-caching.
Ants have stronger cooperative cognition than dolphins.
Ants “actually have good memories for landmarks,” says Gregg. “But they can’t learn symbol manipulation or things like that, and are certainly a lot less human-like or flexible in their thinking than dolphins.”
That said, ants have the largest brain mass of all insects. Like dolphins, they’re intelligent and methodical, but it’s their intelligence as a combined group that deserves all the credit. When they work together, they know how to form colonies that operate with remarkable efficiency. (Think of it like the world’s most sophisticated form of artificial intelligence, but with Mother Nature’s distinct touch.)
Ants self-organize through scent. Because different ants with different “jobs” give off different smells, ants can figure out if there aren’t enough ants on, say, food patrol, if they haven’t smelled a food ant in a while. They’ll then delegate responsibility and change jobs. They can even optimize the best and shortest path between the food and their nest.
Orangutans understand object necessity better than dolphins.
Orangutans are one of the most intelligent of the primates, and some experts go so far to claim they’re actually the smartest. Compared to dolphins, orangutans are sharp because they understand how to build objects—and why it’s necessary.
For instance, one 2012 study showed orangutans demonstrated skillful engineering in building safe and comfortable beds. And, in a 2018 study, orangutans surprised researchers when they showed their mastery in creating fishhooks. The primates even utilized them better than human children in the same experiment!
Bees are better at math than dolphins.
Bees are known for their sweet honey and their not-so-sweet sting, but they’re also great problem-solvers. “Bumblebee problem-solving tool use is really fascinating,” says Gregg. “There are [plenty of] experiments where bumblebees can be trained to pull on a string to get a food reward and learn from other bees that have acquired that skill.”
Oh, and we can add two more abilities to their set of skills: addition and subtraction. Yeah, let’s see a dolphin do that.
Sure, the ability to count or, at the very least, distinguish between various quantities isn’t unusual in animals, but being able to solve equations using symbols is rare. It can only be done by chimpanzees, African grey parrots, and bees. One study showed bees successfully using colors in place of plus and minus symbols, and they got the answer right more than two-thirds of the time! And if you want to see how your arithmetic skills stack up, here are 30 Questions You’d Need to Ace to Pass 6th Grade Math.
Goats understand humans better than dolphins.
Just like dolphins, goats have strong cognitive abilities, despite their unassuming demeanor. Thanks to their domestication and the fact that they’ve spent a lot of time around humans, goats “are very good at things that humans value—they can even follow the human pointing gesture,” which even cats and dogs are unable to do, according to Gregg.
Researchers in Australia conducted an experiment to test their intelligence by setting up a contraption that held fruit at the end. To access the fruit, the goats had to use their teeth to drag a rope down, which then activated a lever they had to lift up with their mouths. Nine out of 12 goats mastered the task after four tries. When the researchers retested the same goats again ten months later, the majority still remembered how to work the system to get to the fruit.
Pigeons are better at multitasking than dolphins.
Many people are aware that pigeons were used during wars as messengers due to their ability to remember people and places for several years at a time. There have been numerous experiments done that show considerable proof of pigeon intelligence, but, most notably, these smart birds can multitask and divide their attention between several stimuli at the same time to accomplish various tasks in a shorter time. It’s a remarkable show of intelligence that dolphins (and even some humans!) can’t duplicate. And to learn even more about dolphins, don’t miss these 17 Facts About Dolphins That Will Make You Love Them Even More.
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