Dolphins have personality traits very similar to humans, study finds

They have evolved in vastly different environments but dolphins appear to share key human personality traits, according to a new study. Researchers looked at over 100 dolphins from all over the world and found that they can be curious and sociable, two of the personality traits that define human behavior.

Image credit: Flickr / Gregory Smith

Known for the elongated shape of their upper and lower jaws, bottlenose dolphins are the most common type of dolphins and can be found everywhere except the Arctic and Antarctic. There are at least three species of bottlenose dolphins: the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), the Burrunan dolphin (Tursiops australis), and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus). They are easy to view in the wild because they live close to shore and are distributed throughout coastal waters, which makes them at risk of human-related injuries.

Bottlenose dolphins are among the most intelligent animals (if not the most intelligent) on Earth.

They have the largest brain mass per body size of any animal except humans, displaying high intelligence and social abilities. They live in societies and can even use tools.

Blake Morton and a team of researchers from the University of Hull collected data on 134 common bottlenose dolphins from different facilities from Mexico, France, the US, Curacao, the Netherlands, Sweden, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands. They gave questionnaires to the staff members who knew the dolphins well and could assess their personality.

“Dolphins were a great animal for this kind of study because, like primates, they are intelligent and social. We reasoned that if factors such as intelligence and gregariousness contribute to personality, then dolphins should have similar personality traits,” Morton said in a statement. “They have brains considerably larger than that their bodies require for basic bodily functions.”

Human behavior has five personality traits, which — funny enough — form the acronym OCEAN. These include Openness (curious, playful, and active), Conscientiousness (reliable, Predictability, and self-controlled), Extraversion (friendly, outgoing, and sociable), Agreeableness (kind, affectionate, and helpful), and Neuroticism (anxious, erratic, and emotionally unstable).

Although previous studies have looked at the extent to which these traits are shared by monkeys and apes, the study by Morton and his team looked at intelligent animals in a completely different setting. “Scientists still do not fully understand why our behavior comes down to those five traits, so one way of doing that is to compare ourselves to other animals,” Morton said.

The researchers found that dolphins have personality traits related to curiosity and sociability, specifically openness and a trait that is a blend of extraversion and agreeableness — although dolphins have evolved in a completely different environment from primates and their last common ancestor living around 95 million years ago.

“We’ve known for some time that dolphins are similar to us in other respects – for instance, you can just watch dolphins on television and see they’re very obviously smart and social,” Morton said. “I don’t want people to misinterpret that and say humans and dolphins have the same personality traits – they don’t. It’s just that some of them are similar.”

While the study provided insights on how the human personality traits might have evolved, for the researchers it’s just a first step in beginning to understand the full spectrum of traits exhibited by dolphins. Further studies will help to better appreciate the species living in our oceans and will lead to a better understanding of the human behavior, they added.

The study was published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology

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