What do we really know about dolphins?
Dolphins and Us
Part One: The Smartest of Us All?
“So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!”
Amazing Abilities of Dolphins
Dolphins or Humans: Who’s Smarter?
Dolphin Society and Culture
They’re Super-Brainy, Too
More Fascinating Stuff
The Great Researcher
A Society that Works
Are Dolphins “Persons”
Life and Culture
How Smart is a Dolphin?
Experimenting on Dolphins
My Visit to the Dolphins
Other Links & Videos
Mirror Self-Recognition Test
The Herman Investigation
The Minds of Whales
In the tongue-in-cheek Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we learn that while humans thought of themselves as the most intelligent species on the planet, they actually ranked third, a little behind dolphins. (We never learn who was at the top of the list!)
In real life, we don’t know exactly where dolphins rank. Much of what we do know about dolphin intelligence, consciousness and self-awareness was learned by a scientist called Lou Herman, who studied a group of captive dolphins at his laboratory in Hawaii. Professor Herman discovered that they’re very smart indeed. Some of what he learned is captured in a fascinating BBC TV show with David Attenborough, which showcases Herman’s work.
Herman devised all kinds of tests that demonstrate their understanding of human language. (They learn what we’re saying to them and to each other a lot better than we can begin to understand what they’re saying to each other!) You’ll see that the kind of “tricks” that trainers get dolphins to do — things like synchronized swimming — are often based on things that dolphins just naturally do in the wild. Catching fish, for example, can entail everyone being able to follow each other in split-second timing. And that’s how entire cultures and lifestyles are developed that are then handed down and improved upon from generation to generation. The amazing abilities of dolphins are critical to how they survive and thrive in the wild millions of years after their ancestors – land mammals – returned to the ocean.
Lou Herman’s discoveries were remarkable. But like so many other people on a quest, he didn’t know when to stop. His dolphins became sick and stressed, but he refused to send them to the veterinarian … in case it slowed his work with them. It was a tragic case of hubris. The dolphins died and his work ended up being shut down.