Dolphins: Non-Human Persons or Dumb Thugs?

Written by on October 3, 2013 in Marine Life, Whales & Dolphins
Dolphins off the coast of Key West, Florida.

Dolphins off the coast of Key West, Florida. Photo credit: J. D. Ebberly via photopin cc.

Last month, several articles popped up calling dolphins “thugs” and “more stupid than goldfish.” Some even compared dolphins to mealworms. These articles were inspired by two recent publications: a study by Paul Manger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and a book by Justin Gregg, PhD, a psychologist and Research Associate with the Dolphin Communication Project.

But do these new claims really negate years of research proving that dolphins are perhaps the smartest non-human animals?

That’s exactly what Gregg’s book, Are Dolphins Really Smart?, tries to explain. According to the author Q&A, his book “provides a scholarly overview of the past five decades’ worth of scientific research into dolphin cognition and behavior,” and isn’t trying to convince people that dolphins aren’t smart. He says “I don’t think anyone who reads the book will be left thinking that dolphins are dumb.”

So how did so many articles get so negative, so quickly? Well that has a lot to do with a paper written by neuroethologist Paul Manger who states that behavioral studies involving dolphins are flawed and therefore inaccurate. “The idea of the exceptionally intelligent dolphin is a myth,” he says.

One article about dolphin ‘thugs’ states that dolphins occasionally engage in “wanton acts of violence.” (They sometimes isolate and kill smaller harbour porpoises with no intention of eating their carcasses.) But do acts of violence somehow make them less intelligence? Many dolphin experts say no because plenty of other animals (including humans) engage in acts of violence.

A later article that references Manger’s study states that dolphins “may be more stupid than goldfish, chickens and even mealworms.” (The claim is that dolphins are dumber than goldfish because when goldfish are put in a bowl, they try to jump to freedom but dolphins don’t always do the same when trapped in a net. My question is: if goldfish really are smart, why would they try to jump out of the water to certain death on the water-less countertop?)

If dolphins weren't smart, would that change how people feel about keeping them in captivity?

If dolphins weren’t smart, would that change how people feel about keeping them in captivity? Photo credit: found_drama via photopin cc.

Laura Bridgeman, a Program Associate with the Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, attempts to clarify this issue in an op-ed for TakePart.

In the post she writes that the ‘dolphins are dumb’ articles “make false claims and disseminate misleading information that is at odds with current scientific understandings of dolphin and animal cognition.”

There have been plenty of examples highlighting dolphin intelligence, including a study revealing that dolphins name themselves. Not only do dolphins have specific names for themselves, but the other dolphins will call them by those names. And, if that wasn’t impressive enough, they can remember those names for more than 20 years.

“It is becoming increasingly accepted that, as we learn more about animal cognition in general, previously held notions of human intellectual superiority are inaccurate,” writes Bridgeman.

To learn more, check out some of these links*:

*I know that’s a lot of references so if you don’t have all day, take a look at the links in bold.

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Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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