Thirty-eight years after the debut of the fourth book, “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, the story remains relevant now more than ever. The whole series itself is a quintessential example of how even a sci-fi story can take on satirical social commentaries that take a jab at issues such as totalitarianism, destruction of the environment, and the overall hubris exhibited by humans.
Surprisingly – or probably, unsurprisingly – most of the themes that were discussed in the story remain reflective of the current times, just like how it was in the 1970s. One of the more straightforward stories in the series is “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.”
Perhaps the most captivating element found in that book is the dolphins. Although the dolphins in the story only occupied a minuscule part, it sparked curiosity among biologists and conservationists. Everyone became intrigued by the intelligence of dolphins that people asked: “Are dolphins more intelligent than humans?”
In the book, the dolphins in Arthur Dent’s Earth vanished as they avoided the upcoming catastrophe. The dolphins did try to warn us humans of our impending doom. Unfortunately, we didn’t heed their warnings and interpreted them instead as their usual playful nature without even the slightest regard for their innate intelligence. So exactly, how intelligent are dolphins? Let’s find out.
Are Dolphins Intelligent?
Dolphins are cetaceans. They belong to the family of marine mammals characterized by their large, streamlined shape, fully aquatic lifestyle, and carnivorous diet. Cetaceans are comprised of whales, dolphins, and porpoises and are known for being the most intelligent aquatic animals.
The concept of intelligence can be a subjective matter, and scientists often measure an animal’s intelligence in a different manner depending on the species. Various research regarding how intelligent are dolphins has been done in a span of a decade and discovered behavioral and anatomical patterns that contribute to this display of cognition.
Are dolphins intelligent? The quick answer is a definite yes. Are dolphins more intelligent than humans? No one knows, but maybe.
1. Big Brains
Cetaceans like dolphins have big brains. Similar to primates, big brains often mean that there is enough room for complex social behavior and better adaptation practices.
A dolphin’s intelligence is a product of brains that are composed of specialized cells called spindle neurons that are responsible for advanced abilities, such as name recognition, communication, perception, problem-solving, and adaptability, to name a few.
Biologists were also able to observe that a dolphin’s limbic system, or the part of the brain where emotions are processed, is more complex than primates, including humans. This means dolphins, like the great apes, are highly capable of creating communities and hierarchies. Big brains are the definitive proof of how intelligent are dolphins.
Behavioral sciences note that playfulness is a sign of intelligence. Any species that can engage in play or playful activities exhibits signs of complex mental capacity. This is the case with dolphins.
Marine biologists often experience pods of dolphins swarming towards them in an attempt to play around. They will exhibit playful behavior such as leaping out of the water, tumbling, doing backflips, and spinning together without a particular reason.
Evidence that lends support to dolphins’ intelligence facts include instances when dolphins would play pranks with smaller fishes and other creatures in the ocean or play with shells and other mollusks.
Fun dolphins’ intelligence facts: dolphins are highly communicative. Dolphin species, such as bottlenose dolphins, are showy and talkative when it comes to communicating with their fellow dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins have signature whistles that are so unique that each individual has different whistles.
Cetacean communication has always fascinated scientists. Unlike primates, dolphins do not have vocal cords. Instead, they communicate with each other through sounds created by air passing through their nasal region, also known as the dorsal bursa.
A set of phonic lips can be found within the dorsal bursa. When air passes through the nasal region of a dolphin and hits the phonic lips, it vibrates and creates the sound we commonly associate with the species.
Developmental psychologists believe that the ability of a species to recognize itself in a mirror is a sign of intelligence. Dolphins exhibit self-awareness and easily pass the mirror test by recognizing their own selves when put through in front of a mirror. This phenomenon has proven yet again the intelligence of dolphins and how they are capable of self-awareness.
In line with this, human children start to recognize themselves in the mirror starting in their first year, whereas juvenile dolphins can start recognizing themselves in the mirror as early as seven months old—a sharp advantage of dolphins’ intelligence compared to humans. This lends support to the intelligence of dolphins.
5. Usage of Tools
Professor Louis Leakey, a Kenyan archaeologist and anthropologist, proposed that what sets humans apart from animals is their ability to use tools. Of course, this theory has been disproven by countless biologists throughout the decades.
In recent years, new discoveries show that primates are not the only group of animals capable of using tools. Dolphins are the perfect example.
Bottlenose dolphins in Australia have been observed to carry sea sponges to feed. These dolphins will then plunge into the seabed where they will use the sponges to disturb the fishes hiding in the sand. When the fishes emerge from their hiding places, the bottlenose dolphins scoop them up and eat them, pick up the sponge and take them to the next feeding location.
Meanwhile, in Florida, dolphins are observed to use their speed to drive around in circles and disturb mud around a school of mullet fish. The disturbed fish will then be forced to leap out of the water and into the dolphin’s mouth.
These are only a few instances where dolphins use the materials around them to hunt for food efficiently.
Threats Faced By Dolphins
As Douglas Adams wrote in “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish:”
“Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he has achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars, and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having fun.”
Perhaps this is the perfect quote to describe how we, humans, tend to act as if we are above nature instead of being a part of it.
This hubris often brings the destruction of nature—a concept that is quite similar to what Adams talked about in the series. This same hubris and irresponsibility are also what cause damage to different dolphin species.
In some countries, whaling is still considered legal. Whaling is mostly done to harvest whale oil and meat for food. Dolphins are also victims of whaling. The activity was banned at the turn of the century, unfortunately, it is on the rise again.
As more and more countries loosen their laws on commercial whaling, the threat of their extinction draws closer and closer.
2. Habitat Loss
With the advent of climate change, the polar caps have started to melt rapidly. This means that freshwater is slowly taking over the seas. This can bring massive changes in the chemical composition of the ocean. Of course, marine animals are adapted to a marine environment, and these changes can affect the lives of these animals, dolphins included.
Advantages of Dolphin Tours for the Conservation of the Species
Similar to the experience of Arthur Dent in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy,” the more people experience nature, the more they feel connected. This connection, along with an overall understanding of the world, is the key to the preservation and conservation of highly intelligent species like dolphins. In recent years, dolphin tours have become an avenue for education. It offers the following:
1. Sustainable Tourism
There are areas in America that are considered breeding grounds for dolphins, and they can be advantageous to the county’s tourism. Dolphin tours can bring tourists from all over the nation. This, in turn, can create an influx of revenue. However, the local government unit should establish strict rules so as not to disturb the natural activities and habitat of the dolphins.
2. Close Up Learning
Learning, in theory, will not make one understand the whole topic. For instance, schools discuss and show photos of dolphins. However, they won’t be able to make a child or a student grasp how dolphins look and behave.
Dolphin tours bring students and people near these fantastic, intelligent creatures, and people can observe firsthand a dolphin’s intelligence.
What started as a humorous way to point at the ills of society in the late 70s has become reflective of the reality of the situation in the present day. Maybe for the 38th year of this influential book, we may reflect on our role as stewards of nature and accept that there are creatures in this world that are more intelligent than us. Skeptical? Just look at dolphins’ intelligence compared to humans.
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