mammal intelligence and Orcas

From: Peter M Scheifele (
Date: Tue Jan 15 2002 - 20:10:01 EST

Hi Graham-

OK my man, here we go!

1) Since you work with a wide variety of mammals, im wondering- next
> to humans, what is the most intelligent mammal?

[Peter's response] I always cringe a bit when the "intelligence"
question comes up but here's my opinion on the topic. First,
"intelligence" is a tough thing to rate. The answer requires a point of
reference. If your reference point is humanity it is hard to relate
animals to ourselves. Do we rate it based on language? Metaphysical
beliefs? Problem solving? Many folks mistake animals that are
perceptive for intelligence. I'm not sure that is wise. Further, I'm
not convinced that humanity exercise true intelligence given the way we
treat one another, and so on (you get my point, eh).

An example: we all know that one student in the class who nearly always
gets 95% or above on exams. You know, if they get less than 95 % they're
kicking and screaming for the extra points. They don't seem to have
trouble with the homework and can generally answer most all questions in
class. If polled, I dare say that most of their classmates would label
them as "smart" (a.k.a. intelligent). I know folks like that who can't
make common sense decisions in life. Consider further, when you say that
so-and-so is smart WHO exactly is your point of reference to? Guess who?
 YOU, yourself!! So now, does that mean you're not smart?

Another example: When I worked as head trainer at an aquarium we found
one afternoon that someone had dropped a small piece of paper into the
pool. Now two of our dolphins had gotten hold of it and were playing
catch with it. As I and one of the maintenance staff watched through the
glass windows of the pool they played on. He eventually went back to
squeegee-ing the windows when all of a sudden one of the dolphins grabbed
the paper and began to "squeegee" the window from their side of the pool!
 Is that intelligent?

One more (forgive my ramblings) example: In the Eastern Tropical Pacific
tuna boats periodically "set" on schools of dolphins when trying to catch
tuna. Now, we've all seen dolphins jumping in and out of aquaria.
They're really good at it. Yet in the face of a net a dolphin will
almost never jump the net. Instead, they will swim headlong into it,
drown and die. So are they intelligent?

In my opinion, marine mammals are very perceptive creatures. They can
learn. They can communicate well. They have some semblance of self and
of their own (and even others). I don't think, from a psychological
point of view, that they are any better or worse than we are but I have
no good way to assess that. If we were to assess intelligence on the
basis of brain development, brain size, encephalization quotient,
neuroanatomy in a comparative sense (with other mammals, mankind
included) we find ourselves also in somewhat of a quandry but it is
generally accepted that we humans top them but that they fall into the
level of other primates.

Basically I just told you all of this in a long-winded way to say- "I
don't have a clue." I don't think anyone else has the lock on this
either but it is a "hot" topic for sure!

> 2) Have humans discovered a way of finding out what dolphins (or any
other whale for that matter) are saying?
[Peter's response] This question falls into a similar category as
question #1 (I'll be more brief though). Dolphins make sounds that are
definitely meaningful to themselves (that is, they can communicate) and
through the use of acoustic and tactile means can sometimes communicate
with humans in my experience. We don't know for sure that they have a
language but then again, why shouldn't they? They are certainly
organized (Orca, for example). Can we translate dolphinese? Nope, not
as far as I know.

> 3) Has there ever actually been a report of an orca killing a human?
[Peter's response] Do you mean "attacking" a human with intent to kill?
I don't know that there are any documented cases of it. Sometimes
behaviours that are "normal" for animals (such as pinning or other
aggressive-submissive behaviours) are mistaken for attacks. That's just
bad data. One has to know the animal's behaviour well before making such

> 4)Do orcas ever hunt other orcas?
[Peter's response] Orcas have been known to be cannibalistic but
actually "hunting" another individual? I don't know. (As you can tell,
there's a lot we don't know about marine mammals).

> 5)Do any other mammals (other than humans) have the ability to choose
or understand right from wrong? (I could swear at times that dogs do!)
[Peter's response] Aah, another phsychological-philosphical question! I
don't know that marine mammals know "right" from "wrong". What exactly
constitutes "right" and "wrong" for an animal? Not doing what we want
them to do? Making errors in judgement that cause them to become prey or
to be hurt or die? Do they know or have a sense of higher beings? God?
Dr. John Lilly got himself pretty well at odds with the scientific
community going there because it begins to depart from the realm of
object science.

I used to train narcotics dogs for the U.S. Coast Guard and I've seen
dogs who seemed to have some sense of good and evil (my partner, for
instance) but I can't say that wasn't self-preservation on her part,
possessiveness/protectiveness or even learned from my actions. I give
this question another rousing "I don't know" for an answer.

I hope this helps. Your questions are good! Best of luck.


Peter M."Skip" Scheifele LCDR USN (Ret.)
NURC NA&GL Director of Bioacoustic Research;
Animal Science Department,
Animal Bioacoustics/Neuroanatomy Researcher
University of Connecticut

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