Dolphin Intelligence | Should They Have Rights?

One population of dolphins (passed down from mothers to mostly female calves) uses pieces of sponge for protection during food forging against the substrate of the sea floor.
One population of dolphins (passed down from mothers to mostly female calves) uses pieces of sponge for protection during food forging against the substrate of the sea floor. | Source

Comparatively speaking, marine cetaceans possess cognitive abilities that are currently understood to only be the capability of elephants, great apes, corvids and of course, humans. Much research has been dedicated to studying these characteristics and how they should be considered within how our ethics are be shaped with animal captivity. Dr. Lori Marino is a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University, and she teaches animal welfare, brain imaging and comparative neuroanatomy (the study of the similarities and differences between species). She is one of the scientific community’s leading voices and advocates of rights for cetaceans and other non-humans. Having studied marine mammals for over 20 years, she states that she believes that dolphins and whales are not fit for captivity because they are culturally rich, have complex societies, and are self-aware.

First, let's define what current research supports in terms of cetacean cognition and intelligence.

Dolphin Cognitive Characteristics

  • Self-awareness (meta-cognitive reasoning, introspection)
  • Futuristic awareness/planning
  • 'Complex' language
  • Understating numerical continuity and less vs.more
  • Complex problem-solving strategies
  • Processing basic syntax (human taught)
  • Tool use
  • Responding with 'creative' conceptualization
  • Novel learning (generational passage of knowledge)
  • Mimicry

The attributes of the cetacean brain

Researchers have examined many possibilities in determining how to 'measure' intelligence through physical attributes of the brain, but there's a tremendous amount of variation in the animal kingdom where brain size, brain features, and brain complexities vary based on the dominant function of the organism and the size of the animal that the brain is in. First, there's the measurement of mere brain size, in which animals for the most part that have more complexities to their intelligence will possess a higher brain to body mass ratio. This puts dolphins second to humans, but also puts the tree shrew on the same level of the cetaceans. Sperm whales possess the largest brain of any mammal, about 7.8kg on average in mature males.

Spindle cells
Spindle cells | Source

The encephalization quotient is a more complex and accurate measurement which defines the relative brain size as the ratio between actual brain mass and predicted brain mass for an animal of a given size, which takes into account allometric effects. With humans (of course) at the top with an approximate 7.44 (although the hummingbird has a 9.0), the EQ differs among the cetaceans. One example is the orca whale (a type of dolphin) which has an EQ of about 2.57 while the bottlenose dolphins have 4.14-5.3.

Elephants, humans, dolphins, and great apes are the only animals known to have spindle cells, and all of these animals are capable of complex tasks. These cells appear to be convergent in intelligent species. Animals that are considered to be intelligent and have complex social instincts all have high neocortex ratios (not all the parts of the brain are dedicated towards cognitive tasks).

Lori Marino, Namio A Rose, and other scientists that support the non-human rights movement suggest that the brains of cetaceans are similarly complex to that of a human, having evolved with the framework required for complex tasks and abilities. Interestingly, cetacean and elephant brains are larger and have more complex attributes than great apes, an animal we would expect to have the highest levels of complexity based on their strong similarities to humans.

I often hear people fancifully try to pass dolphins off as smarter than humans, suggesting that the fact that they have flippers and an aquatic lifestyle is the only thing keeping them from some of the accomplishments or abilities of humans. Yet, from my understanding of the current research, it's plausible that the cetacean's aquatic environment (in combination with other factors, as dugongs are an example of a fully aquatic mammal that do not possess these characteristics) prompted the evolution of their existing cognitive abilities. Cetaceans for instance uniquely possess the ability to use echolocation, a process they evolved for efficient navigation of their oceanic environment. This complex task requires a high level of cognition and grey matter in the brain. Cetaceans have brains rigged to process sounds far more effectively than humans, with their neural area that is devoted to visual processing being about 1/10 that of the human brain. Primate brains devote more volume to visual processing over almost every other animal, but this alone cannot be responsible for human intelligence.

Cetaceans are also voluntary breathers, making anesthesia impossible as they must consciously control their breathing. Research shows that dolphins sleep with only one hemisphere of their brain at a time, unlike terrestrial mammals. This alone can contribute to advanced brain features.

Then of course, there is the fact that dolphins are extremely social, establish complex hierarchies and must be able to process the actions of other individuals within the aquatic environment. Animals that are social in this way pretty much all have more complex cognition, and this is even true with lions (highly social) vs. tigers (solitary), in which lions are thought to be more demanding in captivity. This does give cetaceans some higher 'awareness' that they are touted for, and they are also observational learners with a vested interest in the actions of others.

Whatever the case may be for the dolphin's unique characteristics, I often see people misunderstanding evolution, believing it means that animals are constantly 'advancing' (I call it the 'X-men theory', this movie/comic book perpetuates the same mindset). No they aren't, they are adapting to their environments. Cetaceans have held the same level of intelligence for millions of years. Human modernization as we know it occurred a mere 50,000 years ago.


Dolphin and human awareness, one in the same?

Exhibiting self-awareness is probably the most essential cognitive attribute that cetaceans, elephants, and great apes possess, and it is often touted as a reason why it is wrong to keep such animals in captivity. Lori Marino used mirrors to prove that the animals possess the ability, revealing that dolphins, just like great apes, respond to their reflection the way human children do. The 'mark test' was used to prove that such interactions were not deceptive; when a mark was placed on the animals being tested without their knowledge, they utilized the mirror to further inspect it. Only one elephant so far has passed this test. Magpies, a corvid bird similar to a crow, have also passed this test (again, some individuals haven't). With these results two things can be understood; the evidence strongly supports that such animals realize they are viewing themselves in the mirror, and, the animals that passed actually have an interest in their current condition, as the mark they addressed was of interest to them. This probably would not be the case with other animals that are less visually inclined.

However, it’s one thing to perceive the existence of yourself in the mirror, and another to be able to be to grasp the concept that you 'should' have rights that need to be protected.

Lori Marino, while expressing anti-sentiment for nearly all animal captivity (and meat-eating) has described that it is even more unethical to subject dolphins to captivity because they 'understand what is happening to them', implying that the animals mindfully crave to be freed. I can actually consider that the capacity for an animal to suffer in captivity is increased by high brain activity and socialistic tendencies, but to say that the animal possess the same sentiment that humans do about captivity or confinement (whether or not it's harmful to them) is another subject. I believe that the similarities between human and dolphin psychological conditions are superficial. While there may be complex mechanisms occurring in 'bigger brained' cetaceans, their outlooks on life likely differ from ours from my observations. This isn't to say that the animals appreciate being removed from the wild, but I'm not convinced that keeping such animals in captive environments involves the same thought processes as with humans and that we are committing 'modern day slavery' with aquariums that hold cetaceans (how would we disprove the same for any other animal?). There are plenty of examples of captive cetaceans that have been reluctant to leave once released.

Magpies pass the mirror test

I believe a far more pivotal aspect of the human condition is our innate curiosity about the world around us that exceeds that of other animals. I believe that human beliefs and ideologies stem from our desire to wrap our surroundings into an understandable context so that we don't have to drive ourselves crazy over pondering questions such as "what is the purpose-?"

Going back to my assessment on the results of the mark test, it is certainly interesting that some of the subjects investigated the mark on themselves. That is the basis of the introspective qualities of human behavior, but our insightful abilities extend far beyond the self, and result in our advanced manipulations (hands also help). Human interest in the outer environment is unparalleled. We even take into consideration the emotions and needs of other species that are far less similar to us. I believe that most or all of our 'great leap forward' has all of its ground work in the development of human language. Simply put, the fact that you're reading this and that I'm writing this, reveals why I find the sentence "dolphins are smarter than humans" nothing short of preposterous. And in fact, I feel almost silly for having to explain why.

Then there are my qualms about an animal’s reaction to the mirror test proving or disproving their 'awareness'.

The mirror test and other species

The ability to recognize oneself in the mirror is a pretty impressive cognitive feat. What feels so obvious and natural to us is an enlightening experience to view occurring with another animal species. However, while the mirror test may ‘prove’ that cetaceans are self-aware, does it disprove that other animals aren’t? Marino’s studies show that dogs and cats ignore their reflection, and many monkey species react to their image on the mirror as though they think it’s another monkey. Surely this must prove that other animals are just unconscious and instinctual while dolphins, elephants, and great apes have a more meaningful understanding of their own existence. However, the mirror test is radically discriminatory against non-visually inclined species. Other species-specific characteristics would cause an animal to fail the mirror test even if it had a notable level of awareness.

The difference between animal and human behavior: Instinct vs. Artificial behavior

There are clear cut evolutionary advantages for around 99 percent of every display of intelligence that cetaceans are honored for. Why is this significant? A defining characteristic of human beings is that they are unusually perceptive about their environmental features and develop advanced individualistic societal traits even in ‘primitive’ societies. While much of human behavior can be described as having a foundation in an instinctual trait which contributes to our resulting emotion, it’s obvious that human behavior is difficult or impossible to classify as a stable and expected behavioral occurrence. Art and expressionism for example have no clear-cut advantage in producing viable offspring (the main ‘motivation’ of evolution that animals are expected to select traits for), however, it seems to play an integral role to the human condition, with its occurrence varying tremendously among human cultures and within those cultures themselves. Much of what humans do are not obviously linked to basic survival instincts although we can speculate how these behavioral occurrences can have roots in selective pressures.

An Example: Pilot Whales

Pilot whales for an example are highly social dolphins that develop complex social structures in the wild, but humans see this as similar to our own emotional bonds. But do the whales ‘see’ it that way, or are their social traits more instinctual than inherently or consciously ‘emotional’? Pilot whales are known for being the cetacean most likely to beach themselves in large groups…even returning to the same spot after humans toil to push them back into the ocean (it has been occurring since before humans invented sonar technology). It is thought that maybe the animals do this when one high-ranking member of their pod beaches on land due to illness and the others follow. The other members of the pod may not want to abandon this family member and strand themselves, along with healthy adults and babies, and can die in masses. This may seem to a human to be the ultimate act of ‘compassion,’ but I see this as a completely irrational and thoughtless adherence to a social instinct. Humans have even helped some pilot whales by bringing the babies out to sea and luring the adults to them as they responded to their babies’ distress calls. This tells me that the whales technically didn’t ‘want’ to kill themselves but that they were following an instinct, one that humans were able to manipulate to save them. I have trouble thinking of human equivalents to this behavior.

Non-human person-hood

What is it about humans that qualify them for human rights? Is the size of their brains? Or perhaps their ability to determine the mathematical concept of ‘less and more’?

Is my understanding of my reflection in the mirror the key to my privilege of a human right? Why do human rights even exist? The reason why I find it extremely important to be skeptical about Marino’s claims is because I am not seeing convincing reasons why other animals would be exempt from her criteria (perhaps she does not either). Brain size and complexity alone are poor reasons to suggest the animals are our 'equivalents', depending on how one sees this. Even with an animal grasping some of the more simple concepts of ‘math’ and syntax, I think it is obvious that this cognitive ability is limited and doesn’t make whales rational ‘non-human people’ to the complex level of the human experience. Of course, if we simplify the defining characteristics of humans or 'person-hood', the definition can apply to many animals.

I am not a person who will say, 'look, humans have gone to space, they build buildings and cars, so therefore they are obviously more 'intelligent'. As is obvious, dolphins can't do those things because they have flippers (however, dolphins are congratulated as 'more intelligent' by some people for their lack of 'destroying the earth', and not having nuclear wars like humans do...not one of them suggesting that maybe this is because they do not have that capability). So instead of comparing animals and noting that humans have been to space, ect. (I myself am not capable of designing a space ship or being able to use one), I'm more interested in whether or not these non-human animals care about the existence of space, since they have eyes, and can look up and see it.

Look at the photo adjacent to this passage that depicts the famous drawing by genius Leonardo Da Vinci. Would I expect a dolphin to be able to accomplish the same feat? No. But here's how I see it; an animal as 'intelligent' as a human should be able to consider this picture, as this denotes a high level of awareness. Not all humans are capable of artistic talent, but they are all capable of recognizing what the photo depicts, understanding why it is 'brilliant', and are able to appreciate the talent that produced it. Perhaps much of that has to do with experience and understanding that can only come from the absurd complexities of the human language. This is what human language results in, and that hardly scratches the surface of the human mind. I would expect similarly intelligent animals to be able to exhibit the same level of cognitive complexity in relation to features and animals of their environment, as well as observe evolution in their 'culture'.

So therefore, it isn't really all that surprising why humans would ‘assume’ that cetaceans are not ‘human-like’. Activists would denote that it is it due to some alleged form of species-specific bigotry, yet it is not unreasonable to consider that a highly intelligent species would believe they could observe if another species had similar intelligence to their own. In fact, I would go as far to say that in our current culture we are far more open to accepting animal intelligence and emotions than we’ve ever been, and it often extends to an irrational point. I know my own dog, but there are many instances of people telling me that she is exhibiting a humanized action when I know better. Many people are prone to thinking that their dogs and other animals are simply furry people. I believe that these feelings could also worm their way even into members of the scientific community.

Of course, there are plenty of people who think humans have no business being around any animals or using them in any way, and this is the animal rights rhetoric that I am against. This mentality suggests that riding horses is slavery, eating meat is homicide, and keeping a cat indoors is holding them prisoner. Consistent followers of these beliefs, in order to not be hypocritical, would have to support the belief that human benefit is not a fit reason for keeping animals of any kind. I believe people are morally entitled to their own free will to live their lives outside of the opinions and emotional sentiment of others (outside of actual cruelty and unnecessary, unnatural killing). When people use rhetoric such as “that animal belongs in the wild” they are suggesting that I have no right to keep my animals because their existence did not spring from my room. The world is not that simple.

Animal Intelligence and Ethics

The essential argument of Marino and like-minded people are that these animals can suffer more because of their awareness. They highlight situations such as when whales grieve over the loss of a friend or baby, anecdotal evidence of 'suicide' and what is believed to be depression in some cases, regarding capture and captivity. However, you will not find too many dog owners who believe that dogs cannot experience these emotions, and I’m sure plenty of other animals who have not been proven to be self-aware experience their own forms of grief as well. What right would we have to discriminate against them anyway, considering dolphins barely have to measure up to human feats in order to maintain our same rights.

Dolphins in Captivity

Dolphins (especially orcas) may have troubled rates of survivability in aquariums but this probably has nothing to do with their supposed heightened awareness. Captivity is tougher on this species due to their needs that are harder to meet because they live a fully aquatic life that restricts how they may be assisted in an aquarium (space being an obvious factor). One example is that orca whales often have life-threatening dental ailments because they file their teeth down on the metal of their enclosures in the process of establishing dominance to the other residents. Some groups of orca whales cause similar issues to their teeth in the wild when they choose to exclusively feed on tough-skinned animals like sharks, and that also leads to early death. The wild orcas that do this did not die due to mental suffering but to another condition of their existence. However, the unnatural scenario of orca whales establishing dominance in captivity in such a manner strongly needs to be addressed with captive orcas.

Bottlenose dolphins are a species that have better chances of longevity in captivity, unlike other species of dolphins and porpoises. It all depends on their relative sensitivities or complicating conditions of confinement. These animals even die early and have stressors in the wild that may possibly lead to their self-inflicted beaching and mass deaths (a phenomenon most common in pilot whales). Great white sharks are another non-self aware species that are also unsuitable for captivity, currently. The star of Jaws would probably make an amazing cash cow but their poor survival rates in captivity make their broad introduction to aquariums unfeasible. Not all animal captivity will go 'swimmingly'. It is a science. But we can do our best to support proper welfare standards for the animals in our care, and keep seeking to improve it by all means possible so people can care for and experience these animals up close.

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Comments 20 comments

Andrew Randrianasulu 3 years ago

It will be useful if you post list of actual papers (books) you read...because, for example question about auditory processing in brain was addressed in one of Lori Marino works ....

also, it will be uncovered if you actually understand what word 'instinctive' mean (hint: ethology).

And finally: readers of this blog must understand what you offer _biased_ views on captivity, simply because you think captivity is good. You are pro-cap, who tried to hide under 'balanced views' self-description. In some sense I hope at one day you will repeat famous experiment, and find out WHY captivity is bad, and _even more_ bad for dolphins/cetaceans. (read until very end....but, seriously ....on paper everyone can argue until end of time. I was close enough to captive dolphins - and only illusions destroyed were ones related to _great humanity_ . )

Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

Yes Andrew, I don't think think captivity is inherently unethical. I think I state this frequently and it's the main thing I write about. HOWEVER I always acknowledge when my opponents are correct about things and attack exotic animal keepers when they screw up. So I am not hiding, my views are balanced.

Andrew Randrianasulu 3 years ago

It seems majority of shitstorming happens after articles on Blackfish movie ......sigh, reading 250 + 100 more comments ...

Well, it also says something!

Melissa, you seems to 'battle' with people's misconceptions, yet accepting captivity IS misconception, and it costs lives! _In theory_ for some animals you can create acceptable environment - ut in practice, as fast as money enters into picture .. :/ Look, dolphins and cetaceans OWNED by big corporations, all of them here just for making profit. None works for dolphins themselves, without asking anything [from dolphins] in return, even if some says so! Even if dolphin(s) owned by small business - they definitely just used, and THIS creates big prolem - ppl start to believe actual _caring_ (selfless help) about them impossible and not needed - everything will be handled by 'professional' handlers (pun intended). yet, professional here will mean only - they get paid for making show out of captives (even if show called DAT or SWD). All they learn will be biased! Moment' I'll post two more links, not related to intelligence of dolphins (big topic, really, I have list of papers open, but I need to trim it down a bit - quotes eat too much space!)

Andrew Randrianasulu 3 years ago

So, first one is probably well-known


There is a very real danger to believing the message of zoos

and aquariums. If we pretend that we can learn about animals by

watching them in these human-created compounds of cement and

steel, then we are saying that natural habitats are irrelevant. And if

the animals’ natural context is implicitly presented as unimportant,

then zoos are actually contradicting the message they claim to affirm,

that environmental conservation is a pressing concern.

-------quote end----

But I really, really, really encourage Melissa and anyone who will find this blog to read at lest those: - this one made me cry, literally ...._possibility_ of change something sadly NOT translated into changes! And don't even let me recall latest scandal with (ass)Holer and Marineland Canada (they imported quite big number of belugas from Russia, and few dolphins!) - this one introduced me to concepts of environment enrichment, even if I knew them before..

Strange thing - but it was our dolphinarium director (!) Igor Kostov who first told me _any_ animall will suffer in captivity, even in best possible one! And he pointed me toward Konrad lorenz's works ... Only 10 years later I finally come to read main work of Lorenz, "Foundations of Ethology" - and it, alongside many other books, articles, news stories definitely contributed to my understanding of problem, it gives historical perspective! Lorenz sadly failed to see captivity question as important - but he definitely showed complexity of even 'instinctive' behavior, and exactly existence of this un-removable desires makes captivity tough for any being! With sapient (more on this in next post) eings like dolphins - it all becomes even worse - we have eings who actually can see/predict/extrapolate futture, understand what happened to them, their bodies at least ...whole new area for suffering :/ especially if _all_ their communicative efforts meet with human greed and consumerism!

Here is another quote, from

----quote, p. 49-----

Anheuser-Busch spent around $100 million building Discovery Cove (L. Miller, 2004), quite an investment into a facility primarily devoted to human–dolphin encounter programs. It is exquisitely fashioned, with lush tropical landscaping, magnificent coral reefs, blue lagoons, and rushing waterfalls. The reefs, lagoons, and waterfalls are stunningly manufactured for appeal to the human customers. The dolphins at Discovery Cove appear to be swimming in a “natural” environment, but they exist in concrete pools that, from the dolphins’ perspectives, are probably equivalent to those housing the dolphins across the street at SeaWorld Orlando.

---quote end----

Look around this latest file - it IS big (near 300 pages!) yet has very good number of references, ideas, lines of thinking....

Andrew Randrianasulu 3 years ago


But seriously, how many dolphin language project were attempted during last 50 years?

1. Famous Lilly's experiment


One-to-one, 2.5 Month long [but exposure to lang. was much longer?], acoustical, English as language, objects/actions from normal, everyday life [biased toward human style].

2. Man/Dolphin Communication


Trained using std. technique, two dolphins, acoustical, artificial, object/action in one command.

3. Stuart MacKay

Dolphin Interaction with Acoustically Controlled Systems: Aspects of Frequency

Control, Learning, and Non-food Rewards.


mostly acoustical control ? (not read it yet)


Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, could produce a pure tone of a desired frequency in order

to activate various pieces of apparatus. Aspects of learning by imitation and behavior were observed, as well

as some reward and environmental preferences. Implications for a system of man-dolphin communication are mentioned.

4. An experiment in two-way communication in Orcinus orca L. (1982)

Only one about Orca. need to re-read it.

5. Reiss/McCowan keyboard experiment [not really about language?] McCowan%20 Spontaneous Vocal Mimicry and Prod.pdf

published -1993

done 1984-85 , 87-88

four dolphins, free choice [no training, but no model usage too!], keyboard as interface, acoustic output after key

press, some mimicry observed. 30 min sessions, small tanks, mostly objects, not actions.

6. Kuczaj 2001


bigger assortiment of actions/objects, model training, two male dolphins developed their own comm. sys?? [see 6.1]

Divers modeled the functional use of these keys in the presence

of the dolphins (i.e., without training the dolphins). After approximately 6 months,

or it was really in 1991 ???

6.1 - Xitco, M. J., Jr., Gory, J. D., & Kuczaj, S. A., II (1991). An introduction to The Living Seas dolphin keyboard communication system.

Presented at the 19th Annual Conference of the International Marine Animal Trainers Association, October, Concord, CA.

The hope was that the

dolphins would consistently use the keyboard to refer to all of these objects and

places, and they did in fact use keys designating a variety of referents, especially

places. However, they also introduced a more efficient method of communication.

The keyboard trainers, though admirable swimmers, were much slower than were

the dolphins. Perhaps in response to the waiting times encountered during these

back-and-forth trips to the keyboard, the dolphins began pointing at the fish

containers and other objects.

referenced in

for device used see

7. Herzing

wild dolphins, no food reward, keyboard/acoustical, model/rival technique.

publ: 2012

done: 1997-2000

8. Lou Herman:

1984-2003 (?)

stand. training [food reward], four captive dolphins, mostly sign, one-way, most language-like

Douglas G. Richards, James P. Wolz, Louis M. Herman

Richards, D. G., Wolz, J. P. & Herman, L. M. (1984).

Vocal mimicry of computer generated sounds and vocal labeling of objects by a bottlenosed dolphin, Tursiops truncatus.

Journal of Comparative Psychology, 98, 10-28.

9. JANUS project by J. C. Lilly


no published results, acoustical, small tanks, unclear training.

10. Kassewitz

few captive dolphins, mostly visualised acoustical info decoding and some touchpad [is-image-on-scr-same-as-real-obj] work.

2007-2013 (?)

11. Jim Nollman (ideas, but also some bits from Russia's beluga research [Belkovich?] )

2004 and styles/beluga language.pdf


12. variour papers from Markov and Ostrovskaya:

Markov, V. I. and V. M. Ostrovskaya 1990 Organization of communication system in Tursiops truncatus Montague.

In: Sensory Abilities of Cetaceans, Thomas, J. and R. Kastelein eds. Plenum Press, New York. - see literature

mostly statistical, captivity, up to 20 dolphins, various situations, experiments with acoustical link


'26' Ostrovskaya, V. & Markov, V. (1992) A language to describe the structure of pulsed sounds in bottlenose

dolphins (Tursiops truncatus montagu) In Thomas, J. Kastelein, R. & Supin, A. eds. Marine Mammal Sensory

Systems. NY: Plenum pp 393-414

noted in

13. dolphin language Overview by Fulton



14. Theoretical

Building bridges : a cognitive science approach to a human Dolphin dialog protocol


15. John Sigurdson



Frequency-modulated whistles as a medium for communication with the bottlenose dolphin

(Tursiops truncatus).


ABSTRACT examines the ability of the dolphin to acquire and manipulate a set of artificial FM [frequency-modulated] whistles as a prerequisite for a bidirectional, acoustic communication system / the usefulness of such a set dependson its size, and the practical size depends on the distinctiveness of the elements to the animal as demonstrated by its ability to both discriminate and produce them reliably / [the dolphins in the study were a mature male and a mature female between 20 and 30 years old]

16. McCowan


Statistical, captivity

'30' McCowan, B. Hanser, S. & Doyle, L. (1999) Quantitative tools for comparing animal communication systems:

information theory applied to bottlenose dolphin whistle repertoires Anim Behav vol 57, pp 409-419 et al 1999.pdf

17. Tsukasa Murayama

Beluga whale, one male, captivity

Preliminary Study of Object Labeling Using Sound

Production in a Beluga

International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 2012, 25, 195-207.


This is a preliminary study that shows both production and comprehension of symbols in marine



Unusual mimicry:

18. Do dolphins rehearse show-stimuli when at rest? Delayed

matching of auditory memory

published: 29 December 2011

doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00386

five captive-born dolphins, they re-emitted at night (rest periods) some whale-like sounds after

hearing them during daytime shows. Date of recording: 2009

19. Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean

Current Biology Vol 22 No 20 R860

Sam Ridgway, Donald Carder,

Michelle Jeffries, and Mark Todd

Beluga, after seven years in captivity, started to spontaneously mimic some human sounds.

Started May 1984 , one captive beluga whale, ~9 years old.


who else?


Really sorry about missing abstracts.. you an visit my FB page/notes section.

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Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

Andrew Randrianasulu, I almost didn't accept your first post. I do not want (in my view) malicious organizations like Zoocheck promoted on my page. I'm familiar with the rhetoric these entities spread and it really just equates to emotionalism and wishful thinking masquerading as science. I see that one is co-written by Lori Marino. Your second link by the way is not working properly and many of your other links are broken. I can't access most of them anyway.

" If we pretend that we can learn about animals by watching them in these human-created compounds of cement and steel, then we are saying that natural habitats are irrelevant."

A stupid claim. If anything, taking an animal from its natural environment will teach you more about that animal than you could ever imagine. Learning to care for the animal will force you to completely understand just what it truly needs, and what evolutionary adaptations are ingrained.

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skibee11 3 years ago

1) "Cetaceans have held the same level of intelligence for millions of years." - With what basis do you assert this?

2) "While there may be complex mechanisms occurring in 'bigger brained' cetaceans, their outlooks on life likely differ from ours from my observations." - How much observing have you done? What studies have you performed? How much time have you spent in the wild with cetaceans?

Something you wrote in another post seems to contradict this: "But how can we make such bloated claims about a largely weakly studied species? Not only do humans not often encounter orcas, as they tend to spend most of their time in cold or open waters, but the animals have demonstrated their ultra-conservatism in their way of lives..." So again, I ask, how much have you observed cetaceans, especially those with larger brains that you are writing about?

Aha. If I had only read a bit more of your other post, I would have gotten my answer: "I’ve never seen orcas in the wild..." (Do I need to link to your article for you to remember what you wrote?)

3) "It is thought that maybe the [pilot whales] do this (beach themselves) when one high-ranking member of their pod beaches on land due to illness and the others follow. The other members of the pod may not want to abandon this family member and strand themselves, along with healthy adults and babies, and can die in masses. I see this as completely irrational and thoughtless... I have trouble thinking of human equivalents to this behavior." - I'll give you an example of the human equivalent: the siege at Waco. David Koresh, the high-ranking member of his group of Branch Davidians, decided to cut himself off from the rest of society by holing up in a compound. In my "opinion," which you're clearly fonder of than fact, science and study, Koresh became ill (read: crazy). Regardless of my opinion, he holed himself up, and 117 other people joined him. Other humans (FBI agents) "manipulated" the release of 19 of these individuals, thereby saving them. The rest stayed in for the attack, 76 of which died during it.

4) "Look at the photo that depicts the famous drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci. Would I expect a dolphin to be able to accomplish the same feat? No. But here's how I see it; an animal as 'intelligent' as a human should be able to consider this picture, as this denotes a high level of awareness." - And how do you know an animal does not consider the picture? Because it doesn't speak to you in English and tell you so? Because it acts like it couldn't care less about it? Do you analyze, pore over and discuss every single thing you see?

Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

1) Lori Marino said something like that, in an attempt to brag that the animals were smarter than us before our modernization 50,000 years ago. I just spun it differently.

2) You're right, I don't like the way that's worded (outlooks on life, pretty wrong, it would have been better to say their psychological condition). I was basically saying that dolphins aren't like humans, based on how they behave or 'react' to things (everyone has this same 'observation'). This article of mine is a bit older, my first attempt at addressing this subject. I've now refined my approach. I don't observe the animals in the wild, but I do have the power to read or watch productions from people who do (including those ethologists who disagree with me, the best resource). For what it's worth, that statement back on the other page is about the claim of orcas being 'peaceful', while here I was trying to say that they have separate mentalities from us.

3) Do you actually believe that the pilot whale strandings are similar to human cults? I think that while they superficially resemble each other, a cult is a far more complex thing, the result of (human standard) stupidity/insanity/mental illness, but also more psychologically complex culture (perhaps a short-sighted need to deviate from the dominant culture) that is also bizarre. I think it makes sense that things like this are more common in our artificial societies (vs. uncontacted natural ones). I don't think pilot whale strandings are based on the same mechanisms.

4) I do know now that many studies of this nature have tested my assumptions in various ways, which are based on animals lack of interest to things that are very unique to what they're used to. I do not analyze everything I see because it's common to me, but had I lived in the jungle my whole life (or confined to an area without this stimulation), I think I would. I was trying to state the obvious, it's probably a 'gut feeling' on my part but animals have largely shown a lack of interest in things that are not food-related. I think this is why if an animal DID appear to do this, it would make the news (and would thus be used as an example that animals are intelligent). However aside from dolphins, some animals do not rely on sight as heavily.

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skibee11 3 years ago

Yes, I "actually believe" what I write and assert. In this case, I "actually believe" that pilot whales beaching themselves are similar to the siege on Waco. Notice I did not say they are similar to cults, but specifically the siege on Waco. If you missed that, re-read what I wrote and you will not find the word "cult" anywhere. I don't understand how the parallel cannot be made. The example of the siege on Waco is not merely about a cult. It is directly analogous to the a pod of pilot whales beaching themselves. A sick person/whale removes himself/itself from his/its natural environment, one that leads to his/its death, followers, well, follow. Once again, I question how you can possibly ascertain the complexities that exist in the brain or mind of any other human being (you cannot possibly claim to know what anyone truly thinks outside of yourself), let alone another animal species. People can observe other people or animals until they're blue in the face and still not know what they are thinking. I assert that no crimes would be committed if we were able to peer into the brains and minds of every human, again, let alone other animal species with whom we less able to communicate.

Additionally, saying you "think" this or have a "gut feeling" about that or have "assumptions" about this or claiming to "state the obvious" offer you ZERO credibility. Unfortunately, until you obtain more "facts" and "statistics" and conduct "more research" and "tests," you will sadly be stuck believing the same naïve, close-minded, detrimental ideas you so clearly do.

Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

Skibee11, It seems to me that you are comparing a healthy, natural family unit of animals to an unnatural group of mentally unstable cult human followers. I think we should both agree that cults are not normal or healthy, therefore how will you compare the state of a 'sick' human leader to a sick pilot whale? It makes no sense to me. You're going to have to go in way more detail.

I don't have to do any research, plenty of research from other humans exisst. How much will satisfy you?

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skibee11 3 years ago

You specifically said the leader whale who initially beaches itself is sick. How does that also reflect a "healthy" individual? Sick is sick. Is it not? A sick whale beaches itself. A sick person shuts itself in a concrete compound. I don't understand how you fail to see the comparison.

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skibee11 3 years ago

And it's not the amount of research other humans do that will or will not satisfy me; it's the amount you will include in your posts to back up your thoughts and assumptions and gut feelings, which at this point seems to be pretty minimal. Just saying that other researchers have done studies is not the same as describing and detailing the results of such studies.

Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

Now I'm really lost as to what you're saying, sorry.

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skibee11 3 years ago

To clarify: Sick whales beach themselves, an unnatural experience, and other whales follow suit, resulting in death. Sick people lock themselves in a compound, an unnatural experience, and other people follow suit, resulting in their death.

Point two: Research from other humans does exist. Why don't you include some of it in your posts to illustrate or defend your thoughts rather than merely pointing out that the research does exist.

For example: If I write, "I think the world is round," and you ask, "based on what?" then the kind of response I would want wouldn't be, "Plenty of research from other humans regarding the Earth being round exists," as you like to write, but rather, "According to research conducted by other humans, the Earth is round based in part on simple tests using shadows and sticks. A stick in the ground will produce a shadow, which will move as time passes. In a flat world, the two sticks in different locations would produce the same shadow. That is not the case because the Earth is round."

More statistics, facts, explained scientific studies, research, etc. is what I'm after, not you telling me that all of the aforementioned exists somewhere out there. Laziness does not a convincing debater make.

Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York Author

The pilot whales following the sick whale -are not sick-. All of the humans locked in the compound were all -mentally ill-.

Pilot whales beach themselves when physically sick to avoid drowning. When healthy animals follow suit and die too, that is not intelligent. It's instinct overpowering reason.

"Laziness does not a convincing debater make."

I'm not making any of this up. You really ought to do your own research so that you can build a framework of understanding. It seems like you are just now considering the concepts I'm bringing up. If you want to spend all night reading this dry material so be it--> http://comparative-cognition-and-behavior-reviews.... but I get most of my ideas from my own animals, common sense (what can animals do and what can't they do) and synopsizes of research.

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skibee11 3 years ago

"All of the humans locked in the compound were mentally ill." Really? All twenty CHILDREN were mentally ill? Huh. Speaking of research, have you researched the Waco siege at all? In any capacity?

Common sense does not tell us what animals can do and what they can't. Studies and science and tests tell us what they can and can't do.

Mars 9 months ago

Hello Melissa,

This is quite an interesting topic. I just interested in your thoughts for this: Do the same apply with mentally disabled people? There are several individual humans who possess severe cognitive dysfunction/conditions (Like severe AD or PHM) Their behaviors seem very 'primitive' compared to ours, as some cannot comprehend on their impulses, nor possess variant, complex awareness of their surroundings (like what you stated in this article). I'm just wondering if they could have the same cognitive basis as some other non-humans. Any thoughts?

Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 9 months ago from New York Author

Mars: Nope. If my mom became so brain-damaged that she was a 'vegetable' tomorrow, that would technically make her less cognitively advanced than a chicken. She does not all of the sudden have less rights than a chicken because of this. She can't be eaten or sold because of her condition. She will still be treated with dignity and respect as a human, despite her brain not exceeding a chicken's in complexity. All humans will be treated the same and will not lose their rights because they've suffered an injury, developmental disorder, or something else that prevents them from being normal as intended by nature. Early fetuses being the only exception in my opinion, but I still know where that side is coming from.

Mars 9 months ago

Hi Melissa,

Of course, people with mental disabilities, regardless of what condition they have, should deserve respect and be treated with dignity. They're still human. If my brother suddenly became affected by a brain condition that caused him to loose awarnes, that certainly doesn't make him "chopped liver". But what about rights? What if somebody (human) lacked a moral compass? And as you've stated, (I feel offensive saying this, sorry) should they have rights?

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Melissa A Smith 9 months ago from New York Author

Yes, humans always have rights. People with no moral compass are those only examples of humans who lose 'some' of their rights if they act out on this. If a human kills someone they are imprisoned. Not all animals who kill receive this same action (i.e., bears defending their young in a park) because they are not considered to be beings capable of making moral decisions.

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