4 Ways Whales Show They are Highly Intelligent Creatures

From the way they communicate to the ability to learn, whales are highly intelligent creatures. Find out how whales show off their smarts.

By Allison Futterman
Jan 17, 2024 2:00 PM
humpback whale jumping mountains in the background
(Credit: Maridav/Shutterstock)


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Did you know that whales express emotional loss? Or that they use distinctive clicking sounds to identify and recognize other whales, as we would use a name? Experts link their intelligence to their large brain size, but a big brain isn’t the only thing that makes these marine mammals so special. They have characteristics that show advanced levels of intelligence, including reasoning, problem-solving, and strong memory skills.

What Types of Animals are Whales?

Whales are cetaceans, as are porpoises and dolphins. There are two types of whales: toothed and baleen. Toothed whales include beluga, orca, and sperm whales. Since they have teeth, they hunt for their food, which includes squid, fish, and marine mammals. There are 14 types of baleen whales, including the humpback, blue, and fin whales. Baleen whales have plates that filter water out and trap food sources, such as small fish and plankton. Though they may have differences in appearance and prey, each kind of whale demonstrates higher intelligence.

1. Whales Have Advanced Communication Skills

Whales are known to have an impressive ability to communicate through various methods depending on the type of whale they are. 

How do Baleen Whales Communicate?

Baleens create and hear low-pitched, infrasonic sounds that can travel long distances. The sounds they make are typically described as songs, because of the melodic nature of their sounds. It’s mostly blue and humpback whales that are known for this. Whale songs are used to communicate during mating season and also to convey loneliness or loss.

How do Tooth Whales Communicate?

Tooth whales use echolocation, which is the process of sending out and interpreting sound waves that bounce off objects in the water. Although echolocation is closely associated with hunting, toothed whales use whistles and clicks to communicate with each other. Within a pod, they have the ability to detect which other whales are “speaking” and what message they are communicating. 


Read More: Understanding How Whales Communicate

2. Whales Have a Complex Social Structure

Most types of whales live and travel in groups, known as pods. Although some of the larger whales spend an extended amount of time alone, they still join others when feeding, migrating, or breeding. Pods will sometimes interact with other pods, forming a clan. 

What Happens in a Whale Pod?

Depending on the type of whale, pods range from just a few up to 20. Occasionally, they will grow to many more. Pods usually consist of a matriarchal female and her offspring. These pods tend to form a strong bond. Whales often have social interaction within their pods, including hierarchies, play, learning, and cooperation. Their large brains enable them to develop stronger social relationships.

Read More: The Unique Relationship Between Whales and Dolphins

3. Whales Exhibit Emotional Intelligence

Whales have shown emotional intelligence through the expression of compassion, empathy, and grief. 

Do Whales Feel Emotion?

There are over 100 recorded cases where humpback whales defended other whales and even sea lions, seals, and porpoises from orca whale attacks. Researchers believe this behavior is likely done out of compassion and empathy. There are also cases where female whales clearly mourn the loss of their offspring. Their grief was exhibited through carrying their deceased calf with them. 

Read More: Sperm Whales Have the Biggest Brains, but How Smart Are They?

4. Whales Have the Ability to Learn and Teach Others

(Credit:Charles Bergman/Shutterstock)

Whales are adaptable and skilled at developing techniques to aid in hunting. Not only are they capable of learning, but they can pass on their knowledge to others. They seem to learn by observing — and then replicating certain behaviors.

How Have Whales Learned to Hunt More Effectively?

Humpback whales engage in bubble-net feeding, in which they work together cooperatively during hunting. As they blow air, creating bubbles, fish get confused and trapped on the water's surface. The whales then slap the water (and the fish) with their powerful tails, further disabling the prey. Orcas (killer whales) also cooperate to create waves that push seals off the ice for easier hunting. 

What Can Whales Teach Each Other?

Whales are capable of learning new songs from other whales, including complex songs from other pods. An unusual way whales incorporate their learning is through the use of play. “Kelping” is when whales find seaweed in the ocean and roll around in it and rub against it.  

Read More: How do Whales Hear Their Songs and Other Sounds if They Don't Have Ears?

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