Flipper Fail: Dolphins May be Dumber Than We Think


So is the dolphin actually the dummy of the seas? Most dolphin researchers are offended by such remarks. "To put it bluntly, most of that is bullshit," says Karsten Brensing, a marine biologist with the organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). Manger and Gregg are losing sight of the "total package" when they compare the marine mammals' individual abilities with those of mealworms or bees, he says. "You can use similar arguments to prove that people aren't intelligent."

Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, also has strong objections to Manger and Gregg's conclusions. "We shouldn't dismiss decades of peer-reviewed scientific work," she says, noting there are overwhelming indications that dolphins possess a high degree of intelligence. For instance, scientists have observed how the animals work together to encircle schools of fish. To cultivate relationships, they spoil each other with their own form of "petting" behavior. And in a struggle for power, males will join together to form networks.

Marino even believes that dolphins can recognize themselves. In a famous experiment, she and psychologist Diana Reiss drew markings on the bodies of two dolphins. Then they held up a mirror to the animals. They were fascinated to observe the animals turning around like divas in front of the mirror, presumably to examine their new body decorations.

For Marino, this is evidence of self-recognition, similar to what has been observed among great apes. She and other scientists even want to see the animals given the legal status of persons and granted "some fundamental rights," such as the right to bodily integrity.

None of this convinces Manger, who has a low opinion of Marino's mirror experiment. "The visual acuity of dolphins is actually not good enough to be able to readily perceive such marks," he says, and is critical of what he calls "serious deficiencies" in the design of the experiment.

Stop Calling Them 'Special'

Manger is accustomed to his theories being rebuffed. When he questioned the special features of the whale brain in 2006, dolphin fans called upon Manger's university to suspend him. But he merely wants to prevent the marine mammals from being anthropomorphized. Interpretations of behavior based on "personal bias" are not helpful, says Manger. "Conservation strategies should not be based on unrealistic expectations."

Gregg's primary objective is also to debunk the myth. "We have to stop describing them as 'special'," says Gregg.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the marine mammals' intellectual abilities are by no means unique in the animal kingdom. "Many other species-from sharks to earwigs to rats-lead equally wondrous and worthy lives," he writes.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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