Communicative and other cognitive characteristics of bottlenose dolphins

Diana Reiss, Brenda McCowan, Lori Marino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Scientists have tried to captured the rich cognitive life of dolphins through field and laboratory studies of their brain anatomy, social lives, communication and perceptual abilities. Encephalization quotient data suggest a level of intelligence or cognitive processing in the large-brained dolphin that is closer to the human range than are our nearest primate relatives. Field studies indicate a fission-fusion type of social structure, showing social complexity rivaling that found in chimpanzee societies. Notably, cetaceans are the only mammals other than humans that clearly demonstrate vocal learning and parallels in stages of vocal learning have been reported for humans, birds and dolphins. The dolphin's vocal plasticity from infancy through adulthood, in what is probably an 'open' communication system, is likely to be related to their fission-fusion social structure and, specifically, to the fluidity of their short-term associations. However, conflicting evidence exists on the composition and organization of the dolphins whistle repertoire. In general, the level of dolphin performance on complex auditory learning and memory tasks has been compared with that of primates on similar visual tasks; however, dolphins have also demonstrated sophisticated visual processing abilities. Laboratory studies have also provided suggestive, yet inconclusive, evidence of mirror self-recognition in the dolphin, an ability previosly thought to be exclusive to humans and apes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)140-145
Number of pages6
JournalTrends in Cognitive Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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