7 of the Smartest Sea Creatures

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It may come at no surprise that our ocean is inhabited by some of the most intelligent animals in the world. Here are 7 of the smartest sea creatures: 

7. Whales 

Sperm whales, which are the largest of the toothed-whale species, have the largest brains in the animal kingdom, weighing, on average, 17 pounds. Although the mere size of the brain is not necessarily an indication of intelligence, scientists have discovered that sperm whales, along with other whale species, such as the humpback whale or beluga whales, have spindle cells in their brains.

These cells are only found in species believed to have higher intelligence, such as elephants, great apes, and humans. With humans, spindle cells control the theory of mind, which is the ability to attribute mental states t o oneself and to others, and to also understand that other humans have different intentions, beliefs, and perspectives from one’s own.

In cetaceans, the concentration of spindle cells is three times greater than that of humans. This has led some researchers to consider the possibility of consciousness within certain whale species. Scientist also believe that whale songs might be part of a more complex communication system that has yet to be fully understood. For example, the sounds that a baleen whale make, particularly during the breeding season, have a familiar comparison to music. 

6. Sea Otter 

The sea otter is a marine mammal and is the heaviest member of the weasel family. It is located on the eastern and northern coast of the North Pacific Ocean. Unlike other sea mammals, their main form of insulation is a coat of fur that is very thick and the densest in the animal kingdom. Most other marine mammals rely on blubber for warmth.

Even though it is able to walk on land, the sea otter spends the vast majority of its time in the sea. In fact it is believed that these animals can live their entire lives without ever leaving the water. A significant example of a sea otter’s intelligence is its ability to use tools. A sea otter will often use rocks as hammers to break apart shellfish for food. Their ability to use tools is displayed from a young age. Otter pups raised in captivity exhibit a rudimentary inclination towards tools use, without ever having received training. 

5. Killer Whales 

Killer whales, also known as Orcas, are toothed whales and the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. The diet of killer whales is varied as some only feed on fish, while others hunt marine mammals such as dolphins and seals.

In some instances they have been known to attack other adult whales. They are apex predators meaning that no other creature preys upon them. Killer whales can be found in a variety of marine environments, from tropical seas to Arctic and Antarctic regions, in each of the world’s oceans. The orca has the second heaviest brain among all marine animals and has frequently been described as intelligent. Orcas pass across generations their sophisticated hunting techniques and vocal behaviors.

People that have interacted with these animals have constantly offered examples of their playfulness, curiosity and problem solving abilities. Alaskan killer whales have reportedly learned more than just how to steal fish from longlines as they have also overcome the procedures designed to stop them such as the use of un-baited lines. According to the fishermen, they figured out the decoys in less than an hour, and solved the problem by splitting into groups. Some researchers consider the vocal and behavioral cultures of orcas to be unparalleled in the animal kingdom, with the exception of humans. 

4. Cuttlefish 

Along with squid and octopus, cuttlefish belong to the Cephalopoda class. Even though their name might suggest otherwise, cuttlefish are actually mollusks and not fish. Their biogeographic pattern is peculiar as they are found in shallow waters on the coasts of Africa, Australia, the Mediterranean, East and South Asia, Western Europe but are completely absent from the Americas. Males have eight arms, W-shaped pupils and two tentacles with tooth-like suckers which they use to secure their prey. A fin also surrounds the body from their head.

Like octopuses or squids, cuttlefish are capable of releasing ink from an ink sac whenever they are threatened by predators. They are also characterized by a unique internal shell called the cuttlebone which is used for buoyancy. Historically, jewelers have used the cuttlebone to make casts for various pieces. Cuttlefish are predators, and mainly eat fish, worms, octopuses, crabs, shrimp, small mollusks, and also other cuttlefish. Their brain-to-body ratio is among the largest from all invertebrates. Cuttlefish are capable of communicating visually in a very fast and diverse manner. The common cuttlefish is capable of displaying 34 chromatic, eight postural, six locomotor, and six textural elements which constitute a form of visual language.

They are also referred to as the ‘chameleons of the sea’ because they are able to change their color rapidly and blend into their surroundings. Furthermore, scientists have recently discovered that cuttlefish can choose the adequate camouflage even without seeing the entirety of what they will blend into. This is due to a sophisticated visual system that enables them to determine the environment by ‘reading’ the contours in the same way that humans attribute meaning to basic visual information. 

3. California Sea Lion 

This sea lion’s natural habitat ranges from Southeast Alaska to the Gulf of California and central Mexico. Outside of breading, it spends most of it’s time at sea. It feeds on several species of squid and fish, but is preyed upon by great white sharks and orcas. California sea lions prefer to haul-out on rocky or sandy beaches, but they also frequent marinas, wharves, and other manmade environments. California Sea Lions communicate through a series of vocalizations known as barks. Mothers communicate with their pups through contact calls.

These sea lions are particularly intelligent, so much that they may be trained to perform certain tasks. If accustomed to human presence, they display almost no fear and that is why they are a common choice for public display in circuses, zoos, and oceanariums. The United States Navy has even trained these animals to perform particular military operations. Through the San Diego-based US Navy Marine Mammal Program the sea lions are trained for equipment recovery, mine detection and clearance as well as ship and harbor protection. In the Persian Gulf, these animals can reportedly swim behind an enemy diver that is approaching an US ship, and attach a clamp with a rope to their leg. Before the diver even knows what happened.

California sea lions have also shown the ability of understanding simple commands and syntax when taught artificial sign language. A sea lion named ‘Ronan’ was recorded in 2011 as it was moving it’s head in synchronization to musical rhythms, a characteristic displayed by humans, parrots and other birds with an ability for vocal mimicry. Another sea lion named ‘Rio’ showed evidence of great memory, as she remembered how to do a task that she had not performed in more than a decade.

Because California sea lions are frequently present in circuses, they have been trained to perform different tricks such as: running up ladders, throwing and catching balls on their noses, and even honking horns. 

2. Octopuses 

Octopus are believed to be the most intelligent and behaviorally diverse invertebrate. Marine wildlife experts have identified over 300 species of them, which accounts for more than one-third of the total number of cephalopod species. Octopuses do not have internal or external skeletons, thus allowing them to squeeze through tight spaces.

When threatened by predators they defend themselves by hiding, jetting quickly through the water, using camouflage, and/or through the expulsion of ink. All octopus species are venomous but only the blue-ringed octopus is fatal for humans. From the tests conducted so far, octopuses have shown evidence of a memory system capable of storing both short-term and long-term memories. Mimic octopus have shown a tendency of moving their arms in manners that emulate the movements or shapes of other creatures in the sea. They use their color changing abilities and flexible bodies to imitate more dangerous animals such as sea snakes, lion fish and eels.

Octopus species can be trained to distinguish between various patterns and shapes. Some researchers have claimed that they practice observational learning. In the search for food, they are known to often break out of their aquariums and into others. In some instances they have boarded fishing boats where they opened the holds and consumed the crabs inside. At least four specimens of the veined octopus species have demonstrated an ability of using tools. They were observed gathering coconut shells, handling them and then using them to build shelters against predators.

The intelligence of octopus has evolved differently than that humans, which is why some researchers jokingly refer to them as being ‘alien’. They have 10,000 more genes than human do and approximately three-fifths of all their neurons are located in the arms. 

1. Bottlenose Dolphins 

The Bottlenose dolphin is the most common and well-known member of the Delphinidae family. Bottlenose dolphins can be found in warm and temperate seas around the world. They are present in all the oceans with the exception of the Arctic and Antarctic area. They live in pods, which are groups typically consisting of 10 to 30 members but the size of the pod can vary from single individuals to over a 1,000 members. They are also considered to be among the most intelligent animals in the world.

The bottlenose dolphin searches for food using a form of sonar called echolocation, in which they locate objects by emitting sounds and listening for echoes. Through the burst of clicking sound that they emit in a focused beam in front of them, bottlenose dolphins are able to determine the shape, size, distance, speed and location of an object. They communicate through whistles, burst pulse sounds and body language. Body language communication movements include slapping the tail on the surface, butting heads, snapping jaws and leaping out of the water.

According to the researchers from the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute, the burst pulsed sounds and whistles are vital for the dolphin’s social life and mirrors its behavior. The whistle of each dolphin is unique and they identify each other through it. Scientists have discovered that even after two decades of separation, bottlenose dolphins can still remember the whistles of other dolphins they had lived with.Their communication uses around 30 distinguishable sounds. They are the only known animal outside of humans and high primates that can recognize themselves in mirrors and notice changes in their appearance.

These dolphins have the second-largest brain to body mass ratio, surpassed only by humans. This is believed to be a contributing factor towards their incredibly high intelligence and emotional intelligence. Researchers have studied the intelligence of these dolphins extensively. The investigated cognitive abilities include mental representations, sensory skills and concept formation. These animals have displayed a capacity for comprehending numerical values, symbols for various body parts and even various gestures.

Bottlenose dolphins can also use tools and have shown a capacity for teamwork and transmitting cultural knowledge over generations. In some places around the world they cooperate with fishermen by driving fish into their nets and eating the ones that escape.

Like the California sea lions, bottlenose dolphins have also been trained by the US Navy to perform various tasks such as locating sea mines or detecting and mark enemy divers. A US Navy-trained dolphin named ‘Tuffy’ accomplished a 990 foot dive, the deepest ever recorded for a dolphin. 

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