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Are whales smart?

Hi Dr. Universe: Are whales smart? Tishawnie P., 9, Massachusetts
Dear Tishawnie, Whales can learn to do all kinds of amazing things. Humpback whales learn how to blow bubbles and work together to hunt for fish. Dolphins, a kind of toothed whale, teach their babies different sounds. It’s a kind of language the young dolphin will know for life.

But to find out just how smart whales really are, I asked my friend Enrico Pirotta, a Washington State University researcher who studies how blue whales make long journeys across the ocean.

Before he revealed the answer to your question, he shared a bit more about intelligence. Usually people talk about intelligence as the ability to learn something and apply what they learn, he said. It can be tricky to compare our intelligence with other animals, but it’s something some scientists think about.

“There is not an IQ test we can do with whales,” Pirotta said.

Whales have instincts. They follow their moms, go to the surface to breathe, but they also can learn. They have a pretty high level of intelligence when compared to a lot of other animals, he added.

Pirotta told me that if we were in Australia, we might even see some dolphins who learn to carry sea sponges on their beaks. They do this to protect their beaks from getting poked by critters or sharp pieces of coral while they search around for food in the sand.

It’s also important to note that what we know about whale intelligence comes mostly from studying those in captivity, especially dolphins. We still don’t know as much about wild whales, but Enrico said the studies we do have are showing that the wild whales are likely just as intelligent.

Whales have pretty big brains. In fact, the largest brain on the planet belongs to the sperm whale. The sperm whale brain weighs about five times as much as a human brain. But just because you have a big brain doesn’t necessarily make you smarter.

However, we do know that animals that have a big brain compared to their body do tend to have a certain kind of intelligence. One particular thing scientists look at when studying intelligence has to do with special cells that help animals process information. They are called spindle neurons and they’ve been found in humans, elephants and apes, too. Scientists have found connections between these parts and an animal’s ability to learn and apply knowledge.

Pirotta also said some animals, like whales, also appear to have something called emotional intelligence. They can show signs of empathy, grief, joy and playfulness. All of these learned behaviors, types of intelligence, and signs of teamwork have led scientists to think about groups of whales in new ways, too.

“We now believe this qualifies as a form of culture,” Pirotta said.

Who knows? Maybe one day you will use your own human intelligence to study whales and help us learn more about whale culture and what’s going on inside their brains.

Dr. Universe

Do you have a question? Ask Dr. Universe. Send an email to Washington State University’s resident scientist and writer at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu or visit her website, askdruniverse.com.

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