An astounding video made its rounds in January. A group of very experienced divers were on a dive off the coast of the big island of Hawaii. They were looking for manta rays when a wild bottlenose dolphin approached one of the divers. The dolphin was obviously in distress and the diver quickly saw that the problem was that a fishing line and hook were entangling the dolphin. The dolphin stayed still for the diver to begin cutting away the line, went up to breathe, and then came back down to the same diver so he could finish his work. He wasn’t able to get the hook out of the dolphin’s skin, but at least he was able to cut away most of the fishing line.
This begs the questions of exactly how could a wild dolphin know that a human could take care of whatever it was that entangling it, and how did that dolphin know that it could safely approach a human? One might also wonder how that dolphin – since it had of course never known what clothing is, much less diving gear – may have made the leap of understanding to know that the human-shaped figures it may have seen swimming near the shore or standing on boats are the same animal as the ones it approached who were wearing the scuba gear.
If this isn’t hard proof of intelligence, I don’t know what is. Now one might say that dogs approach humans when they’re in distress, but this almost always refers to tame dogs, or dogs that have at least had a significant amount of exposure to humans and have often been bred for their loyalty and friendliness to humans. Dolphins, on the other hand, inhabit a wholly different realm than that of us landlubbers. What’s more, we now know that dolphins – wild bottlenose dolphins like in the video above, at least – call each other by name. There’s even research that’s made some real progress towards not just understanding dolphins, but to engage in actual two-way conversations with them. This might well be possible since we’ve found that dolphin speech shares some similarities with human speech.
But while dolphins seem to be easily the most intelligent animal on the planet other than humans (though many of us would agree that’s up to debate), there’s plenty of other examples of both intelligence and awareness in animals. It is becoming fairly well known that octopi are not just able to squeeze through openings much smaller than their bodies but are even capable of picking mechanical locks in order to escape. Elephants have been shown to use teamwork that requires an understanding of using tools, and even ravens have been shown to use tools in a complex sequence of actions to retrieve food.
There’s indications of great white sharks showing not just the ability to hunt cooperatively, but also a tendency to show curiousity. There’s research now showing that different bees have different personalities and spiders that weave decoys of themselves that scientists suspect are “part of a defense mechanism meant to confuse or distract predators”.
Stories abound of the intelligence of dogs and horses and even cats, but such cases almost always apply to those that had been domesticated by humans. But now we’re coming to understand not just that dolphins may be every bit as sentient as humans but also that the awareness of oneself may well be found everywhere in the animal kingdom, that the old definition of self-awareness – being able to recognize oneself in the mirror – may not be an accurate definition of self-awareness after all.
I really love eating meat – I’m watching Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives as I’m typing this. They’re showing world-championship baby-back ribs and my mouth is watering; after all, I might talk trash about Mississippi most every day, but they’ve got the best BBQ there ever was. But now that I’ve seen the results of research into the intelligence of animals, when I hit the drive-through at McDonalds I can’t help but think it’s almost like cannibalism. But I still make the order. It’s an addiction, I guess.