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Just How Smart Are Orcas, Dolphins & Porpoises, Really?

September 2, 2015

When curious Dall’s Porpoises investigate tour boats instead of the other way around (with the people on board investigating the animals), people often catch themselves wondering what they’re thinking. Dall’s are the most common types of porpoises that live in the waters between the southern coast of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. There’s a specific type of dolphin, the largest of its kind, that makes its home here as well:

The Orca.

And while there are a few key differences between the Dall’s Porpoise and their larger cousins, both animals share a mysterious intelligence that human beings still don’t quite comprehend. This article over at Brain Power suggests there’s an enormous amount of knowledge hiding behind that famous grin.

“We always knew whales and dolphins showed intelligence, but new research is revealing how little we really know. They’re more like us than you might have suspected.”

The Orca’s Language

Orcas, smaller dolphins and porpoises communicate through a sophisticated series of clicks, squeaks, whistles and pulsed calls. According to Sheenah Duclos, the Head Naturalist here at Orca Spirit, orcas can distinguish not only different family members only by hearing them, but each pod possess its own distinct dialect.

Think about that – an orca can tell if his family has a visitor in the same way we can tell if our sister’s new boyfriend grew up in Newfoundland just by hearing him say ‘thank you’.

A Social Network of the Sea

One of the immediate benefits of such detailed communication is the family unit or network of associates that’s created. We’ve talked about the difference between meat-hunting transient orcas and close-to-home fish-eating resident orcas before. It’s the ability to communicate clearly that assists both crucial processes. Orcas live as a unit, they hunt as a unit and they travel as a unit.

Just a second, unit? Family, that’s the right word. Like the powerful aboriginal tribes who revere the whales so much, orcas value their families throughout their entire lives.

The Proof is in the Details

According to Kathy Moran, a senior natural history advisor for National Geographic, proving the intelligence of dolphins, porpoises and orcas is a tall task.

“When something like cognition becomes the framework that the visuals have to hang off of, then that behaviour is absolutely critical to the storytelling.”

Kathy Moran, National Geographic

Working on a photo essay called It’s Time for a Conversation, Kathy and photographer Brian Skerry were tasked with providing images demonstrating dolphin intelligence. The pair had a tough time capturing these behaviours on foreign turf, the animals’ massive habitat beneath the surface of the water.

Note: please go read It’s Time for a Conversation above and meet Hector and Han, two dolphins in captivity who, upon receiving the command to ‘innovate’, communicate with each other underwater before performing a trick in tandem their audience hasn’t seen before. Remarkable.

Practical Intelligence

For many people, it’s easy to believe that dolphins can understand basic commands because we’ve seen it happen at aquariums or in documentaries. What’s difficult to comprehend is the intelligence required by these mammals when there isn’t a friendly handler available with a bucket of free food.

An orca in a tank has no qualms about performing a basic routine in exchange for an easy lunch.

When natural circumstance calls for it, however, when survival is on the line, is it instinct that kicks in? Or is it a distinct language and powerful community that allows these large-brained creatures about which we know relatively little at this point to thrive beneath the waves?

Whether its instinct or improv, the only way to be sure, short of asking, is to watch these animals in their natural habitat.

Apparently that’s the only place they’ll share their secrets.



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