Dolphin Nature, Technology, and the Environment

Sophie Nasrallah

For my final project presentation, I decided to lead a discussion about tool use across intelligent life forms. Most species only exist for about 100,000 years, and the human race is reaching this threshold (Chomsky). At the same time, we have been damaging the environment that we depend on at an unsustainable rate (Chomsky). Many tools that we develop in order to aid our survival, like pesticides on crops, often harm another essential resource, like fish and our water resources in general. In my discussion, I wanted to hone in on whether all species that evolved to be as supposedly intelligent as humans would be this self-destructive.

Image 1: Algal Bloom as a Result of Runoff


The first reading I assigned to the class was an overview of dolphin intelligence entitled Still Think Humans are the Most Intelligent Animals? Here’s Why Whales and Dolphins Have us Beat. This article illustrated how cetaceans like dolphins have high-order thinking skills including complex communication systems and brains that contain specific neurons similar to those of humans (Montgomery). It touches on how dolphins also exhibit a rare humanlike self-awareness in that they can recognize themselves in mirrors (Montgomery).

The second reading, Like Humans, Apes, and Crows, Dolphins Use Tools to Explore the Parts Others Cannot Reach, was paired with a video. Both focused on the first evidence of the use of tools in cetaceans, namely sponges as a food-gathering aid (Krützen). Mothers teach this ability to use sponges as tools to their offspring in a process known as cultural transmission – which also greatly influenced the evolution of humans (Krützen).

Image 2: A Dolphin Using a Sponge as a Tool


In the discussion, we debated whether dolphins will reach or have already reached human intelligence since they seem to be evolving in similar ways as we did. Though dolphins and humans have different types of intelligence, they share the ability to live in communities, self-awareness, tool use, and they even use each other as tools. Humans use dolphins to find underwater bombs in military operations, for example, while dolphins use human fisherman to round up fish for an easy meal. Other cetaceans like Orcas have been known to commit suicide due to depression, an act we would not typically consider possible in creatures other than humans.

Shark Bay, the only area where dolphins have been observed using sponges in the hunt, is populated by the largest amount of dolphins (Krützen). A certain subsection of the cetaceans discovered how to use sponges to exploit a different type of fish as a food source. In terms of the Tragedy of the Commons, this could be seen as a form of self-regulation in which the dolphins regulated the amount of free-swimming fish they consumed. One student brought up the point that it was too difficult to determine if this was truly a Tragedy of the Commons situation, as it is hard to determine whether the dolphins used the sponges out of foresight for the survival of the species or out of ingenuity in exploitation of an alternate food source. Dolphins have been known to exhibit future thinking, however, especially in that many have been observed preparing cuttlefish to eat following a specific “recipe” in which they receive no rewards for completing each step of the procedure until they reach the very end (Dell’Amore).

The third reading, Sea Sponges Through History, detailed human use of sea sponges as tools. In ancient Greece, humans originally harvested the sponges as needed to clean wounds, transport water, and bathe (“Sea Sponges”). Soon enough, humans began to harvest the sponges for unnecessary purposes including the incorporation of sea sponge diving as an Olympic sport (“Sea Sponges”). Dolphins, on the other hand, regulate their sea sponge use by only picking the sponges when necessary to hunt for food. This may be yet another form of the Tragedy of the Commons situation in which dolphins can self-regulate their use of sea sponges but humans seem to lack the skill. Why is it that we humans who are intelligent enough to understand the concept of sustainability cannot bring ourselves to act in sustainable ways? It may be because most humans carry a tech fix ideology, in which they believe that it doesn’t matter if we overuse a resource because some human will be smart enough to find a fix when the resource disappears. Dolphins, who as far a we know do not hold such a belief, only act in sustainable ways, which suggests that perhaps sustainability is the default mentality, so to speak, of most natural beings.

Image 3: Dolphin vs. Human Brain


Ultimately, the discussion brought no solution to the question of why dolphins—who have an intelligence level almost on par to that of humans—always use their tools in an eco-friendly, sustainable way while humans most often do not. Though no one could think of a tech fix for the inability of humans to self-regulate as dolphins can, we did come upon the realization that dolphins, who are supposedly inferior in mental fortitude than humans, are able to survive in a more future-friendly way than we Homo sapiens.

Assigned Readings

Reading 1: Overview of Dolphin Intelligence:

Optional Video: Dolphins Exhibit Self-Awareness in Mirrors

Reading 2: Dolphins Using Sponges as Tools

Video: Dolphins Using Sponges as Tools

Reading 3: Humans Using Sponges as Tools


Chomsky, Noam. “Human Intelligence and the Environment.” University of North Carolina, 30 Sept. 2010. Web.

Dell’Amore, Christine. “Dolphin ‘Chef’ Follows Cuttlefish Recipe.” National Geographic News. National geographic, 28 Jan. 2009. Web.

Dolphins Create Sponge Armor. Perf. Dolphins. Youtube. Animal Wire, 29 Apr. 2014. Web.

Dolphins See Themselves in Mirror. Youtube. CNN, 27 Nov. 2010. Web.

Krützen, Michael. “Like Humans, Apes and Crows, Dolphins Use Tools to Explore the Parts Others Cannot Reach.” The Conversation. The Conversation US, Inc., 12 Apr. 2014. Web.

Montgomery, Madison. “Still Think Humans Are the Most Intelligent Animals? Here’s Why Whales and Dolphins Have Us Beat.” One Green Planet. One Green Planet LLC, 4 Dec. 2014. Web.

“Sea Sponges Through History.” The Sea Sponge Company, 2012. Web.