Animal World
Dr. Lori Marino: The Magnificent Minds of Dolphins      
Hallo, gentle viewers, and welcome to Animal World: Our Co-Inhabitants. One of the world’s most widely loved animals of the sea is the dolphin. On today's program we’ll visit with Dr. Lori Marino, an expert on cetacean intellect and a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology as well as an adjunct instructor in psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. A good portion of her dolphin research involves studying the brains of wild dolphins who have died of natural causes.

For the past 15 years, I’ve been studying the intelligence of dolphins, and I’ve been mainly doing that by looking at their brains. I do something called Magnetic Resonance Imaging. And what that means is I look at that structure of their brain, I look at the size of their brain. I look at how their brain is put together, and then try to infer something about their behavior and their intelligence and their abilities from that.

In 2001, Dr. Marino and her colleague were the first to publish research regarding the ability of Bottlenose dolphins to recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability scientists say demonstrates self-awareness. Before Dr. Marino’s discovery, self-recognition was thought to be a characteristic unique to humans and the great apes.

A few years ago, I set out to do a study, to look at the relative brain size of dolphins and whales and humans and other primates, and the relative brain size is really the size of one’s brain relative to the body size. And the bigger your brain is compared to your body, the more processing power you might have.

So when you look at humans, modern humans, our brains are very large for our body size. And we look at our closest relatives, the great apes, you find that their brains are very large as well. But there is another group, and that’s dolphins and whales that have a much larger relative brain size than all other animals, including the great apes, and they are really second only to modern humans.

I use medical imaging techniques to study the size and the structure of the brains. It gives me a three-dimensional view of the inside of the brain. And that allows me to measure the brain, that allows me to look at all the components of the brain and it gives me a great deal of flexibility in terms of the kinds of analyses I can do.

Can you explain to me a little bit more about the encephalization process and how that works in your study?

Yes. Encephalization is a word that means the growth of the brain over evolutionary time. (Okay) And so if an animal is really highly encephalized, that means over time their brain has gotten very large. So humans, modern humans, are the most encephalized organisms on the planet right now. So if you do the same sort of calculation for other species, what you find is many of the modern dolphins and whales are more encephalized than any other animals on the planet, except modern humans.

In fact I did an analysis a few years ago looking at modern dolphins and whales and how encephalized they are compared with our recent hominid ancestors, and found that up until about a million years ago the most encephalized animals on the planet were not hominids, they were dolphins. We know that about 35-million years ago, there was a significant shift in the dolphins and whales. Their bodies got smaller, their brains got bigger.

Now what we are trying to figure out is what happened at that time. We think it has something to do with the change in their behavioral ecology, meaning something to do with their group living. And we know that one of the things that characterizes most dolphins and whales today is the fact that they are enormously socially complex.

Dolphins are known to be very talkative and communicate to other members of their pod or social group through whistles and clicks. Non-verbal communication is also used. For example, to ask her baby to stop doing something, a mother will nod her head up and down.

This is the brain of a Bottlenose Dolphin. And the Bottlenose Dolphin is probably the best known Cetacean species. And there’s several points that I want to make about this brain. First of all, from an absolute size, this brain is a lot bigger than the human brain. Second of all, the part of the brain that is involved in very high level cognitive processing, thinking, self-awareness and that kind of thing, is the neocortex and that’s this wrinkled outer portion here.

And as you can see it’s very, very large. Not only that, but it’s even more convoluted than the human brain, meaning that there’s more wrinkles in it, so there’s a greater surface area. And what that tells me is that, throughout their evolutionary history, dolphins’ and whales’ brains have expanded tremendously and in particular in the regions that are involved in higher order cognitive processes.

When we return, we’ll resume our fascinating discussion about dolphins with Dr. Lori Marino. Please stay tuned to Supreme Master Television.

Welcome back to Animal World: Our Co-Inhabitants as we continue our interview with dolphin intelligence expert, research scientist, and senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University, USA, Dr. Lori Marino.

Dolphins and whales do have a number of different cultures, and by that I mean that they have learned behaviors that are passed on from one generation to the next. Some of those cultures are tool-using cultures. So there is a group of dolphins off the coast of Australia that use a sponge.

They carry the sponge in their mouth and they use that to root around the bottom of the sand. And it was started by the dolphin female. She passed it on to her children and now many of the dolphins, though not all in that group do the sponge carrying. So that’s a great example of tool use and cultural transmission at the same time.

What if we were to analyze a conversation between two dolphins? What would we find?

One of the very interesting lines of research that my colleague, Brenda McCowan has been doing is to look at the natural communication system of dolphins. So she records their whistle repertoire. And then through a mathematical formulation takes a look at whether or not there’s structure in that repertoire. So you and I are talking and if someone were to record our speech and put it through the same process they would find that there’s a structure there.

The structure comes from syntax, which is again a very important aspect of true language. And what she has found is that there is structure in dolphin communication signals. What they’re saying is not clear but the fact that they are saying something in a very complex way is pretty clear.

Dolphins are friendly towards humans and have been heroes in emergency situations.

In Europe, a dolphin saved Italian teenager Davide Ceci from drowning. Fourteen-year-old Davide was in his father's boat in the Adriatic Sea when he accidently fell overboard. The boy did not know how to swim, and his father was unaware of what had happened. Davide was within minutes of death, when a dolphin named Filippo came to the rescue by keeping him above water. At the time Filippo was living off the coast of Manfredonia in southeast Italy and was a well-known and celebrated friend to visitors of the area.

Dr. Giovanna Barbieri, a maritime researcher, stated, “Filippo seems not to have the slightest fear of humans. I'm not surprised he should have done such a wonderful thing as to save a human.”

Do you think that the dolphins are in any way trying to communicate with us as human beings?

I think dolphins do try to communicate with human beings, they certainly do that. In the wild they sometimes try to make contact. I think what’s important to know about dolphins, though, is that they are so busy with their own lives that they’re not always motivated to communicate with humans. And so what that means is that we have to leave them to their natural lives so that they can do what they want to do.

Dr. Thomas White is director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University, USA, and a scientific advisor to the non-profit research organization the Wild Dolphin Project. He is also the author of the thoughtful book, “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier,” in which he advocates for regarding dolphins as “non-human persons” due to their intellectual and emotional sophistication.

The idea of personhood has been brought up by a philosopher colleague of mine, Tom White. And he has put forth this notion that dolphins are sentient, intelligent, emotional beings with their own life to lead, which I completely agree with. And that if you look at being a person as having those traits, then dolphins certainly qualify.

Lori Marino's research on dolphin intelligence caused her to make an important decision about her life’s direction.

I thought to myself that I’ve spent 15 years or so having a very good life, professional life studying dolphins and that one thing I needed to do was to use that expertise to help them. And so I decided to make a shift in my career and that includes my personal life. So I became a scientist advocate, not just a scientist. And that’s changed how I eat, that’s changed the things that I do. I advocate for animals in all sorts of arenas, and it’s become extremely fulfilling for me and I want to spend the rest of my life doing whatever I can to make things a little bit better for other animals that we share the planet with.

Lori explains how her love for animals also caused her to change her diet.

I’ve been vegetarian for many, many years, and I am in the process of becoming vegan. I realized that I had to become a vegetarian when one of my nieces, who was about eight years old at the time, saw me order fish in a restaurant. And she looked at me and she said, “Aunt Lori, if you love animals so much why are you eating them?” And you know, I didn’t have a good answer to that. And that made me realize that I had to become a complete vegetarian because there was no way to defend it any other way.

Many thanks, Dr. Lori Marino for helping us understand the divine intelligence of dolphins and other animals. Your efforts are helping create a more compassionate world, where all beings live in equality, freedom and harmony.

For more details on Dr. Marino, please visit

Thank you for joining us on Animal World: Our Co-Inhabitants. Coming up next is Enlightening Entertainment after Noteworthy News here on Supreme Master Television. May you enjoy greater wisdom and happiness with each passing day.

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