Are Beluga Whales Intelligent? [Here’s What Scientists Say]

Are Beluga Whales Intelligent? [Here’s What Scientists Say]

Cetaceans – whales, dolphins, and porpoises – are among the most cognitively advanced animals, with exceptional problem-solving, communication, inferential, and self-awareness abilities. But what about beluga whales, are they clever?

Yes, beluga whales are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals on Earth because they are curious about their environment, pass traditions through generations, and share skills. Their intelligence is due to a large number of folds in the neocortex of their brain which is used for thinking, self-awareness, reasoning, and communication.

Keep reading to find out more about the extraordinary intelligence of a beluga whale.

Are Beluga Whales Intelligent?

Beluga whales are known for their excellent communication and mental representational ability. A beluga whale’s brain weighs approximately 2kg (4.5lbs), whereas a human brain weighs 1.25kg (2.75lbs). Just like humans, beluga whales are naturally curious about their environment and pass cultural traditions within the pod from one generation to the next.

The neocortex – the portion of the brain responsible for analytical thinking, self-awareness, reasoning, and communication – contains a large number of folds in beluga whales (known as convolutions). These folds result in a larger surface area which explains why beluga whales have complex intelligence1 (source: M.P. Simmonds, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Vol 100, Issues 1–2, pp.103-116, 2006).

Beluga whales will bubble blow for fun!

Many different types of bubbles can be created, using the blowhole, to change the significance – social play and solitary play. Studying play activities allows scientists to test the intelligence of animals through testing self-awareness and communication. The fact that beluga whales have applied meaning to bubbles proves how smart they really are2 (source: F. Delfoura and S. Aulagnierb, Behavioural Processes, Vol. 40, Issue 2, pp. 183-186, July 1997).

Although beluga whales have big heads, this is not related to their intelligence. Their large head does not mean that they have a really big brain, it actually houses their melon which is an organ used for echolocation.

In any case, the size of the brain does not relate to the intelligence of an animal at all. Intelligence is tested by an individual’s interactions with members of the same species and other species.


Are Beluga Whales Smarter Than Dolphins?

Dolphins are very social animals that create intricate and profound bonds with other dolphins. It could be said that dolphins are able to form friendships, like humans. There have been multiple accounts of bottlenose dolphins displaying helpful behavior for injured members of their social group; including physical care, food sharing, and defense of their young3 (source: L. Marino, Neuroethics and Nonhuman Animals, pp 177–189, 2020).

However, no other marine mammals have expressed empathy and open-mindedness to other species than the beluga whale. In the St. Lawrence Estuary, a pod of beluga whales adopted an astray juvenile narwhal. First spotted in July 2018, to this day the narwhal still travels with the pod and takes part in their social and sexual interactions4 (source: E. Siracusa, Earth Sky, 2018).

Both dolphins and beluga whales are smart and whilst scientists can hypothesize about which animal is smarter, they cannot accurately come to a conclusion because animals do not think about, see, or feel their surroundings in the same way that humans do.


Related Questions

What is the IQ of a Beluga Whale?

Some scientists have tried to train animals to sharpen their senses in order to be able to give them an intelligence quotient (IQ). It has been estimated that the beluga whale has an IQ of 155, however, animals cannot accurately be given an IQ since it refers to their ability to solve problems. An IQ of an animal will always be restricted to the individual life processes such as food availability and threats5 (source: Opera News).

Are Beluga Whales Smarter Than Humans?

No, beluga whales are not smarter than humans. Although the brain size of the beluga whale is much bigger than the human brain, brain size does not make an animal smart or dumb.

A beluga whale’s neocortex part of the brain is more convoluted than humans. But a beluga whale only has five neocortical layers to a human’s six. This suggests that a beluga whale’s brain is much simpler than a human and therefore less intelligent 6(source: M.P. Simmonds, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Vol 100, Issues 1–2, pp.103-116, 2006).

Are Beluga Whales Friendly?

Yes, beluga whales are friendly and have been seen to develop communities that are identical to human communities, with comprehensive social networks, support structures, and even cultures within their species.

Beluga whales will bubble blow for fun in order to have social interactions with other beluga whales. This playfulness is also expressed in captive beluga whales that are often seen playing with humans7 (source: CA Recchia, Social Behaviour of Captive Belugas, Delphinapterus Leucas, 1994).

Elizabeth Bayliss

Elizabeth is a final year BSc Marine Biology student at Bangor University. The focus of her studies is on extreme marine habitats, specifically the polar regions and all animals that reside there. She's an expert at examining peer-reviewed literature and loves to share her findings to inspire others.