Friday, March 19, 2010

Killer Whales: As Smart As Chimpanzees?

After the blogfest Wednesday, Lugh has taken up a solid residence in my brain. Highly distracting, and definitely not conducive to a break from writing. I've caved, and I'm putting down some words to satisfy him for the short term, but in the meantime I'm going to take a bit of a break from blogging here for a week or so. I'll be back with something for you next Friday (and a guest post elsewhere), but I'll be skipping Tuesday's usual substantive post. Anything in the middle means that I've either overloaded on research or driven myself a bit demented. I'll let you decide.

In the meantime, I want to talk a little bit about Killer Whales today, because they've been in the news a bit, and I found a really fascinating article about Killer Whale intelligence on (Man has it been a while since I surfed their website!)

The thing of it is, we work with these amazing animals and study them, and the more we learn the more we realize that we really haven't scratched the surface. Some scientists consider Killer Whales to be on par with Chimpanzees as far as intelligence goes, and you'll see in the article words like "Culture" thrown around. This is because we can't explain by any measurable scientific evidence why three populations, without significant genetic differences, have found such startlingly different ways to live, and not just live, but pass on their method of successful living through generations. These populations have distinct dialects, and distinct lifestyles. And what other animal, with startlingly few genetic differences, exists in distinct populations with distinct dialects, passing on those distinctions to their offspring for generations?

I've said it for years, and I'll keep saying it, not because I'm a tree-hugger or some crazed environmentalist, but because of studies like these that come out every so often and don't get the attention they should. Humans are animals, and the more research we do, the more I believe that we'll find ourselves less unique within the animal kingdom. The brain of a Killer Whale is 15 lbs. They're highly social animals, capable of learning, interested in interacting, and inquisitive. They are also, taking into account the incredibly different environment in which they thrive and the lack of opposable thumbs, not all that different from us.

One of the questions the article asks is whether Killer Whales, as intelligent as they are, could be capable of intentionally killing a trainer. Obviously we have no scientific way to know this, just as we have know way of knowing if a man murdered someone purposefully or not. That the question is even being asked at all is kind of a testament to the level of intelligence exhibited by these animals. Have you ever heard someone wonder if the tiger that attacked Roy did it on purpose, to lash out at the man who had been its trainer? It isn't exactly a common refrain. In my reading, the only other animal (non-ape, mind you) that has been accorded that level of consciousness is the elephant. The idea that animals might be capable of vengeance or the purposeful intent to kill a person which whom a relationship has been built is shocking. But so is murder.

Just because we have no way to measure it, does it mean it isn't possible? Just because we have no way of communicating effectively across the species divide, does it mean that we are the only animals capable of experiencing the things that we experience? Capable of thinking the things we think?

I'm inclined to think that it just means our understanding is too limited. And that's another thing that isn't really measurable by science, but we all know it exists in varying degrees. Ego. Hubris. Pride.

Sometimes we forget that science is just a method of observing the universe, not the entirety of the universe itself.


  1. Hmm... I wonder how killer whale intelligence compares with dolphin intelligence? I know a lot about the studies done on chimps (thanks to all my anthropology classes) and it's pretty amazing how smart those little guys are.

    We need more animal studies!

  2. A quick wiki search says that bottlenose dolphins have a 5.31 EQ (it's 5.3 times the "average"), compared to the Killer Whale at 2.59 and the chimpanzee at 2.49. Humans rank a 7.44. It's kind of an inaccurate measurement of intelligence, but it gives you a rough idea of how much to expect from an animal, I guess. I didn't realize dolphins were so high, in comparison. Elephants come in at only 1.87, which seems really low for what we observe in them as far as cultural behavior, emotional response, capability for vengeance, and so on, but it's still higher than a good portion of animals on land and sea. (I'm curious if the EQ is different between Asian and African elephants, honestly, but the "low" number in elephants just goes to show how inaccurate a measurement it is, considering the research.)

    Anyway, all of that to say, bottle-nosed dolphins are in the same family as Killer Whales, so the level of their intelligence would not surprise me regardless. And I definitely agree that we do need to do more research and studies into this kind of thing, because not only will it facilitate conservation but it will also help us to better understand our own behaviors.

    1. There is no way in 100 years a dolphin is twice as smart as a killer whale. Absolutely the opposite. If you take blubber out of the body mass vs. brain size equation killer whales rate more highly than chimps.

    2. Killer Whales rate more highly than chimps already, even without that. But yeah, I think you're right that there's something fishy (ahaha) about the EQ ratio there -- and I don't buy the lowball for Elephants, either.

  3. I saw a piece on PBS awhile back about Killer Whales assisting an east-coast Austrailian town in whaling!

    The killers would drive humpbacks into the cove and then splash their tales, alerting the humans. It worked out good but the people always had to remember to share some of the prize with the Killers. I guess this went on around 70-80 years ago or so.

  4. See, that's the stuff that really blows my mind. Killer Whales and dolphins really seem INTERESTED in developing cross-species relationships, and there are so many stories of them engaging with other animals out of curiosity or for fun. I think it's really unique, and really fascinating.

  5. Wow! So interesting--dear little whales. I like to read about animal studies like this. But Amalia, all I could think of while reading your blog was the scene from the movie "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," when the poor whale (albeit not Killer) falls to the ground with the flower pot.

    "What is that big, flat thing, rushing toward me? Owww, oww, groouund. Ground!"

  6. Not "So long and thanks for all the fish!" ? :)

  7. I think you're right about the human tendency toward ego and history tells us that we've always thought we were the center of it all, the most intelligent, etc. But there is a limit, and when we begin to consider how knew knowledge impacts what we already know, it usually takes the form of "we thought this" but our data was too limited and something else ends up being true. Your conclusions about animal intelligence sound plausible to me, within this framework.

    Another great post, Amalia! There's a little something over at my place for ya!

  8. Exactly! We're limited in what we know, and we forget our own limitations and end up making assumptions when the data just isn't there. Thanks for the comment, and for the award!!

  9. Of course killer whales are capable of intentionally killing a trainer. The relationship they have had was not one of equals, it was master/servant. The orca in question has gotten away with murder now twice. Once he killed a home invader and the second time he made it clear who was really in charge.

    I've seen a lot of killer whales in the wild and a lot of dolphins. When you look in the eye of a wild killer whale you are looking into the soul of an equal. Not a scientific analysis, I know, but at least as good as any other speculation I've read. If they lived on land and had hands instead of dorsal fins killer whales would be the dominant species on the planet and there would be nothing much we could do about it.

    1. I remember going to an aquarium one spring, in Florida, and they had a dolphin they were caring for, for some reason, and the way it WATCHED the people who walked by -- it was PERFECTLY clear that this was an intelligent and aware creature, capable of understanding and reasoning. There's absolutely something to be said for looking these animals in the eye -- and the world would be a better place if more people were made to do so, if you ask me.

      But I think, too, that it makes people uncomfortable to know that there are other animals that close to us, intelligence-wise.

      Wasn't there just a kerfuffle, not long ago, now that they've discovered that dolphins have names for one another, that ethically it raises questions about their use (some might say abuse) in entertainment, and keeping them in captivity? Because these are self-aware individuals? But I mean. Is there any real proof that any other animal is NOT A self-aware individual? Minus hive insects, I guess, where an argument could be made for hive-mind and lack of individuality but really. The assumption that until they have names for one another any themselves that we can identify they aren't creatures which should be treated with this level of respect as, if not equals, at least given freedom is really... troubling.

  10. Hello there! Its probably a bit late, but I'd just like to shed some more light on the issue of the Killer Whales and their lethal attacks on humans. The Orca that you speak of is likely the one named Tillikum. When he was little he was taken and separated from his family (these are very family-oriented animals) by a violent capture in the wild. From there, he went on do endure VERY bad conditions. He had killed 3 people, at least one of them was a Seaworld trainer at the park and another before Seaworld took him into ownership.

    Point is, he now spends his life in miserable isolation - you can simply see the sadness in his face as he is kept separated from all other animals and personnel and kept only in a tiny pool. He barely moves.

    Whether or not he is aware of what he did is a mystery, but these animals are indeed super complex. For a more lighthearted story, look up the whale called "Luna" who became lost from his pod in the wild. He eventually found comfort in befriending the locals around him. Although, let it be said, it was not the best for him (he died because he swam into a boat, and with too much human contact he could no longer survive on his own simply not knowing how to be a proper orca.) Nevertheless, the true inquisitiveness and curiousity, as well as genuine affection he gave to people - all coming from a wild animal, an apex predator that even JAWS fears.

    Truly, truly mystifying!

    1. I've read a bit about Tillikum, and the whole of it is really pretty heartbreaking, but I don't recall whether the article was just posing the question generally or if it was in reference to an attack -- certainly I was speaking generally, more than anything.

      I really kind of struggle internally in regard to marine parks like seaworld. On the one hand, I think it is important for our ability to empathize and sympathize and identify with nature to have some kind of interaction and exposure to these animals -- why should anyone care about an Orca if an Orca is just the idea of an animal that lives in the ocean that they'll never see or interact with in their lifetime? Whereas, if someone got splashed by Shamu, they're likely created a more personal connection to these fascinating creatures, with whom we share the world. Orcas aren't just an idea anymore, they're now an animal that someone shared a moment with, shared an experience with. If keeping a handful of Orcas in captivity guarantees that the Orcas in the wild will always have the support of mankind in their survival, is it worth the trade? Do we have the right to make that choice for them? Particularly if they're so intelligent they're capable of some level of decision making for themselves, if only we could understand them and make them understand us.

      Or is even that worth keeping them imprisoned? Would just simple filmography and specials on the discovery channel and animal planet and pbs be enough to expose us to Orcas in a manner that evokes our compassion and sympathy, to drive us, as a world, to protect and nurture them in the wild? Are stories of scientists in the arctic teaching an Orcs how to have a snowball fight just by happenstance ENOUGH to allow us to see these animals as creatures deserving of survival?

      In a perfect world, humanity wouldn't need a personal connection with an animal in order to find reason and excuse to allow it the space to live. Just the very fact of its existence would be enough to guarantee its place. I wish we lived in a perfect world. But for now, I'm going to feel really good about the fact that India recently passed a law granting Dolphins personhood and forbidding them to be kept for entertainment. It feels like a really huge milestone, and the first step in the right direction, and I can only hope that laws like that will provide Dolphins (and Orcas) protection in the wild as well as in captivity.


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