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Dolphins on Evolution, Genetics and Intelligence

Updated on September 18, 2012

Most of you could probably remember the 1996 movie, Flipper, starring Paul Hogan and Elijah Wood, whom most of you would also immediately associate with his role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Frodo Baggins. Much of what I could recall from Flipper was a young boy befriending a dolphin which, at one point in the movie, went Rambo on a hammerhead shark, I think.

Are dolphins the gentle sea creatures that we are so familiar with through movies such as Flipper? Only one so wise would be quick to point out that the world is a much grimmer reality than what the screen usually depicts it to be.

It's Evolution, Baby!

Dolphins and whales are believed to be the descendants of carnivorous creatures with long snouts, known as Mesonyx, which walked the land on hooves instead of claws and on all fours during the Eocene period, before it decided to move to greener pastures, or in this case, clearer waters from which to derive sustenance. The Mesonyx adapted to their aquatic surroundings through the next few millions of years, eventually losing their hind limbs while replacing their forelimbs with a pair of pectoral fins.


As you can see in the picture on the side, the embryo of the pantropical spotted dolphin starts growing a pair of forelimbs, and then the hind limbs, the growth of which eventually cease in development, leaving only knobs on the lower portion of the embryo. The skeleton of a mature dolphin is incorporated with rod-shaped pelvic bones, a throwback to a long-forgotten past of what it was like to have functional hind limbs instead of vestigial ones.

Brainy Animals

How intelligent exactly are dolphins, compared to the rest of its animal kin, including us? While dolphins have been observed to be most closely related to cows on a genetic basis, they also share with humans and elephants certain phenotypical similarities, namely a large brain and the intellectual capacity that comes with it. The genetic analogy to cows is also reinforced by the fact that dolphins have a multi-chambered stomach as their bovine cousins do.

That's not all. According to the link provided, one side of a dolphin's brain is capable of staying conscious for a time while the other side rests, its body continuing to swim through the water under the circumstances; and all this is attributed to a particular human gene found altered in dolphins. Somnambulating dolphins, now that's something you don't hear every day.

Cunning Hunters of the Sea

Staying true to their evolutionary lineage, dolphins are known to be efficient hunters, as they employ an impressive array of strategies to feed themselves that Sun Tzu himself would probably be left gaping, knowing this, while dropping the Art of War to the ground.

Usually, a beached something is bound to be a dead something. Then dolphins swim along to prove themselves an exception. The article here mentioned a number of dolphin hunting tactics, which includes strand-feeding, where participating dolphins would herd their prey to the shore and slide out to gobble them up, before sliding back in, as the internet cliché puts it, like a boss.

According to the same article, dolphins are also shown to use a hunting tactic known as mud-ring feeding, where they lift up plumes of mud and silt around a school of fish before it could flee, trapping it like a net. Below is a video showing the startled fish jumping out of the water before falling into the eagerly open jaws of the dolphins involved. Now that's called ingenuity.

Note to all dolphins: Employable only in shallow and muddy waters, otherwise considered mentally deficient by sea-dwelling peers.

While it is common knowledge that dolphins are capable of rudimentary mathematical calculations (addition, subtraction), as are chimpanzees as well as elephants, a recent article suggested that they may be far more capable than we give them credit for.

One tactic employed by dolphins in their hunt for food involves blowing bubbles around their prey in order to cluster them into a bait ball for easy picking. What prompted the suggestion concerning a dolphin's mathematical prowess is that the bubbles, while serving as the dolphin's hunting advantage, would also scatter off the dolphin's sonar. Such circumstances would interfere with the capacity for detection of any man-made sonar, so only two options are apparent to the man behind the hypothesis, Tim Leighton: either the dolphin blocks off its echolocation, or it's got this fantastical way around the mathematics of seeing through said sonar scattering.

Personally, I think it's only a matter of shooting through the resulting bait ball, which would probably guarantee a mouthful or two for the dolphin, being dressed up way more complicated than it should seem, though let's not dissuade ourselves from the notion that dolphins aren't capable of more remarkable things just yet.


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    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 5 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Just to be fair, you're citing The Sun...

      "...It is thought they have learned the skill from a former captive dolphin called Billie who mastered it in a theme park..."

    • heatblast92 profile image

      heatblast92 5 years ago from Malaysia

      There's also something about dolphins teaching each other how to blow bubbles at Seaworld few years back. If such an animal is capable of learning tricks from others that serve no other purpose than as a source of entertainment, then it should face no problem adapting itself to practical ones for its own gain.

    • heatblast92 profile image

      heatblast92 5 years ago from Malaysia

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 5 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Seriously? A dolphin accidentally swam in a circle, stirred up mud, observed the behavior of specific fish, then told his friends?

    • heatblast92 profile image

      heatblast92 5 years ago from Malaysia

      What I gathered, dolphins possess sufficient intelligence to be taught as well as to teach their own kin. The same way most human discoveries came into being, the dolphins probably, and that's a big 'probably', came upon by sheer accident the discovery that their quarry can easily be led into an illusion of confinement by stirring up mud around them. At least, that's what I assume to be the case, considering they are also believed to be almost as smart as man.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 5 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Well, it's got a lot to do with evolution because if you subscribe to the particles-t0-people theory of evolution, then you need to provide a stepwise path for this functionality.

      The amazing dolphins didn't just wake up one day and begin swimming in coordinated circles at just the right depth/speed/location to catch a school of fish for dinner. Unless there's an incremental explanation of how this capability came about, it pretty much debunks the general theory.

    • heatblast92 profile image

      heatblast92 5 years ago from Malaysia

      Merely a statement of a dolphin's capacity for ingenuity, not sure what it's got to do with evolution :)

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 5 years ago from Ohio, USA

      " they lift up plumes of mud and silt around a school of fish before it could flee, trapping it like a net."

      And this evolved.... how?

    • greeneryday profile image

      greeneryday 5 years ago from Some tropical country

      Wow this is very interesting, I've did not know that dolphins and whales ancestor was the same, and used to walk on land with feet which eventually transformed to adapt to watery environment. Thank you for putting this together, and well done... voted up and more!


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