Interpreting Orca Intelligence

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It was recently in the news that dogs, on average, are as smart as a two year old human child in performing some tasks, and in some ways are considered to rival four year olds in their ability to understand both language and simple arithmetic.

And once again, I started thinking about orcas and their large brains, and about how we humans have a difficult time in assessing the intelligence of other species. We want to be able to measure them using ourselves as yardsticks, we weigh and measure their abilities based upon our own…yet those measurements inevitably fall short because other species are adapted so differently.

Nonetheless, until science is able to unravel the mystery of animal intelligence, most of us are comfortable with comparing animals to ourselves and to other animals. I think the real problem comes when we put a ‘spin’ on what we see, it causes us to develop beliefs and attitudes about a species before we truly understand its nature or abilities.

To illustrate this, I’ve included three YouTube videos all based on footage of the same orca encounter in Antarctica. I was able to embed two of them here, the third would only allow a link – but it is worth the trouble to view it, because it sensationalizes the event and makes speculations. Plus it changed the outcome…which was actually a happy one.

CNN’s version – concise.

A Spectator’s footage – longer with more detail.

Animal Planet’s version: Dramatic and misleading, but interesting.

The point here is that we can see the intelligence of the orcas in action, no one can reasonably challenge that. But we don’t know, really, how the orcas communicated during the event, nor do we know their motivation — and the things we see in the media can be misleading.

So are they smart? Definitely. Someday we will have an idea of how they compare to us, but in the meantime we have to be careful that we don’t form concepts that are based on misinterpretation.

After all, the fact that the orcas chose not to kill the seal tells us as much about them as does their brilliant hunting strategy.

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