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How smart is a seal?

Seals display a range of intelligent behaviors that suggest they have more complex cognitive abilities than many people realize. In this article, we’ll explore what’s known about seal intelligence and cognition to answer the question: How smart are seals?

Do seals have big brains?

One indicator of intelligence is brain size relative to body size. Animals with larger brains tend to be more intelligent. How do seal brains compare?

Seals have significantly larger brains than fish and reptiles of similar size. For example, harbor seals have brains around 3 times the size expected for their body weight. Elephant seals have the largest brains of any seal – up to 10 times larger than fish of the same size.

Among mammals, seals have brains that are medium-sized. Seal brains are smaller than primate brains but larger than the brains of hoofed mammals like sheep. Overall, the size of seal brains suggests they have cognitive abilities exceeding fishes and reptiles but likely below the most intelligent mammals like primates, cetaceans and elephants.

Do seals use tools?

Another sign of intelligence is the ability to use tools. Tool use requires insight and creativity to manipulate objects in new ways to achieve goals. Very few animals use tools, so tool use indicates advanced cognitive abilities.

There is no evidence of seals using tools in the wild. They have not been observed manipulating objects for purposes like getting food or grooming. Seals’ physical anatomy is also not well suited for complex tool use.

However, a few captive seals have been observed using tools in aquariums and zoos. They can be trained through positive reinforcement to use objects in creative ways. For example, a captive harbor seal named Sissy was recorded using a plastic tube to scratch her back.

The fact that seals can use tools in captivity suggests they have the cognitive capability for basic tool use. But their lack of tool use in natural settings indicates their intelligence is still limited compared to the most sophisticated tool-using mammals.

How good is a seal’s memory?

Studies of seal memory provide insight into how well they can retain information. Good memory abilities require advanced cognitive processing.

Scientists have conducted experiments to test seal memory using delayed matching tasks. In these tests, researchers present an object like a symbol or shape to a seal. Then after a delay, they present this object again along with a new object and reward the seal for correctly identifying the initial object.

Seals perform well on delayed matching tasks, still scoring 80% correct or better with delays of several minutes. Their memory declines with longer delays but remains above chance levels up to 2-3 hours later.

For comparison, bottlenose dolphins achieve similar performance to seals in delayed matching tasks. Primates like chimpanzees and humans outperform seals with very long delay times. But seals have better memories than most fish and reptiles.

Overall, the evidence indicates seals have a good memory for retaining visual information over short timescales. Their ability to remember specific objects and patterns after delays suggests cognitive processing beyond simple conditioning.

Can seals learn complex behaviors?

Many intelligent animals like primates, cetaceans and birds can learn complex new behaviors through observation, insight and practice. Does seal intelligence extend to this type of flexible learning?

In experimental settings, grey seals have demonstrated an impressive capability to learn complex novel behaviors. In one experiment, a grey seal named Hoover was rewarded for mimicking human oral behaviors like puffing cheeks, opening mouths, etc. Hoover learned to copy over 20 different behaviors just through observation and practice.

Wild seals have also shown situational learning to adapt to new conditions. Some populations of elephant seals and harbor seals have learned to navigate human-made locks and gates to access new territory. This involves mastering behaviors like waiting at gates and moving aside for lock openings.

The evidence shows seals are cognitively capable of flexibly learning new skills and responses beyond simple conditioning. They can modify behaviors through experience in both captive and wild settings.

Do seals communicate with each other?

Social species often have more advanced intelligence and communication abilities. Complex communication requires cognitive skills like perspective-taking, intentionality and abstraction.

Seals produce a wide range of vocalizations and physical displays for social interaction. Mother-pup pairs use unique vocal calls to identify each other. Dominant seals assert threat displays like neck posturing to establish hierarchy. Mating seals have elaborate courtship rituals.

Statistical analysis indicates seal calls have structure and variability beyond random noise. This suggests they may encode some level of information. However, seal vocalizations are still relatively simple compared to advanced animal communicators like whales, primates and birds.

Overall, seals do appear capable of intentional, context-specific communication. But their social interactions are not as complex and information-rich as the most socially intelligent species.

Can seals think logically?

Advanced intelligence includes capacities for logical thinking, problem-solving, understanding causality and predicting outcomes. Do seals display evidence of these cognitive skills?

Several experiments have tested seal logical thinking abilities. In discrimination tests, seals can learn to apply abstract rules like “always choose the dimmer light” to solve problems. This shows an understanding of concepts beyond direct conditioning.

When presented with novel puzzle boxes, seals are often adept at intuitively figuring out solutions by trial-and-error. They persistently experiment with different behaviors in a goal-directed manner until the puzzle is solved.

However, seals appear to have limited understanding of physical causality. In tests where seals observe objects being hidden in containers, they struggle to infer which container now contains the object. This suggest their logical reasoning has gaps compared to highly intelligent species.

While seals show some abilities for concept formation, problem-solving and insight, their thinking skills seem limited compared to advanced general intelligence. Their cognitive abilities are still impressive but do not demonstrate comprehensive logical reasoning capacities.

How does seal intelligence compare to other animals?

Based on behavioral research, how does seal intelligence compare with some other animal groups?

Animal Intelligence Level
Fish Lower
Reptiles Lower
Seals Moderate
Hoofed mammals Similar
Cetaceans Higher
Primates Higher
Corvids & parrots Higher

Seals have greater cognitive capabilities than fishes and reptiles with their small, inflexible brains. Among mammals, seals have an intermediate level of intelligence, exceeding hoofed animals but below dolphins, primates and other highly intelligent species.

A few bird groups like corvids and parrots stand out for advanced intelligence rivaling seals and in some ways exceeding them.

How do wild seals use their intelligence?

How do seals apply their cognitive and problem-solving skills for survival in the wild?

Seals use intelligence for key behaviors like:

  • Remembering complex migration routes over thousands of miles
  • Recognizing and remembering unique calls of offspring for parent-offspring bonding
  • Learning to associate fishing nets and piers with sources of food
  • Figuring out how to unlatch cage and box traps to escape captivity
  • Coordinating tagged-team feeding strategies to herd fish

These examples demonstrate seals flexibly using memory, communication skills, insight and problem-solving in their natural environments. Their adaptive intelligence helps them survive and thrive in the wild.


Research into seal cognition reveals they have moderately advanced intelligence compared to many animal groups. They outperform fish and reptiles in cognitive tests and display some impressive capabilities like flexible learning, tool use potential and robust memory. Their intelligence is adapted to support survival strategies like long-distance migration, foraging and social interaction.

While seals show some remarkable cognitive skills, their intelligence appears limited compared to the most sophisticated tool-using, socially complex and communicative species like great apes, dolphins and elephants. But among marine mammals, seals stand out for their combination of smarts and adaptability.