How Intelligent Are Seals? Exploring Their Cognitive Abilities

Have you ever watched seals performing tricks at an aquatic show?

Oct 22, 2023By Jill Horton
how intelligent are seals

Seals are curious and playful semi-aquatic animals. They have incredibly enhanced senses and are quick learners. Have you ever wondered just how smart seals are? Read on and find out!

Learning from Other Animals

seal mother baby
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Learning from experience is one of the fastest ways to gain knowledge. Humans study how to walk and talk from their caregivers. Did you know that seals often discover more about how to navigate the world around them in a similar fashion?

While males may not participate heavily in the everyday care of young seals, they do teach them useful tricks! When a child learns to ride a bike, things like scraped knees are a normal part of the learning process. For these semi-aquatic animals, the consequences of awkwardly figuring out how to swim can be fatal. Predators such as sharks and whales stay vigilant for easy meals. Adult male seals regularly guard the juveniles and chase off dangerous creatures while their young sharpen their skills.

Seals Have Incredible Memorization Skills

seal playing ball
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Elephants are known for their keen memories. In fact, it’s said that they never forget. What about seals? They have good memories too; for about 18 seconds. Surprisingly, that’s enough time to figure out how to follow specific directions, memorize the necessary steps, and carry them out!

How does the ability to memorize information affect their intelligence? Seals fascinate crowds attending aquatic shows at zoos and large public aquariums. They understand keywords and gestures. They typically learn a basic command to emulate what a trainer does. These marine mammals perform tricks like catching and balancing a ball on their nose or waving a flipper at an excited audience. Then, they are rewarded with a fish for their efforts. Seals remember that watching and listening to a trainer, then replicating commands, earns them tasty treats.

Bulking Up

baby seal
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For seals, a nice thick layer of fat is necessary to withstand icy temperatures. Whether these semi-aquatic animals are diving into the water or lounging on the beach, blubber is a good thing to have. Adults devour as many fish as they can. Shrimp, krill, sea birds, clams, plankton, and squid are also on the menu.

Seal pups enjoy high-fat milk from their mothers to bulk up quickly. If you pick up a gallon of whole milk from the grocery store, it has around four percent fat. You might be surprised to learn that up to 60% of seal milk contains fat! Tricky youngsters learn to get extra servings by nursing from other moms around the colony. The added padding gives them advantages, like staying in frigid water longer than their peers.

Good Sleeping Habits

seal swimming shallow water
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Do you enjoy a good snooze? So do seals! You might be surprised to learn that they can sleep underwater. Normally, most species can hold their breath for up to 30 minutes while submerged. These incredible animals do not sleep with one eye open to watch for danger. Instead, when it’s bedtime in the sea or ocean, seals sleep with only half of their brain turned off.

Don’t worry, though. They do get a chance to catch up on their rest. When seals are on land, their entire brain finally winds down. After sometimes spending months living solely in the water, it probably feels amazing to get a good night’s sleep at last!

Complex Thinking

seal performing tricks

Dog owners know that their canine pals have deep thoughts. After all, a dog’s brain has over 40 million neurons. Did you know that a seal’s brain is even more complex than that? They take in massive amounts of information to work through problems, track other animals, avoid predators, perform tricks, and more.

Pinnipeds consist of authentic “earless seals” and walruses. Sea lions and fur seals are both called “eared seals.” Both earless and eared seals possess enhanced hearing and heightened awareness of vibrations in the water. Their whiskers are more sensitive than a cat’s, helping them find food and air holes in the ice.

The Eyes Have It

seal under water
Image Credit: Shannon VanDenHeuvel on Unsplash

Look at those expressive eyes! Seals have advantages when it comes to superior eyesight. They have unusual ocular anatomy that expands underwater vision and adjusts pupil dilation to accommodate bright reflections on land. For example, seals that live in icy parts of the world don’t suffer from snow blindness!

Their impressive, advanced vision capabilities boost seals’ perception and spatial relations. Pinnipeds even have insulating layers to their eyes, protecting them from harsh conditions and intense pressure while in lower water depths. All these features combined boost seals’ overall intelligence levels, regardless of their species!

Communication Specialists

seal closeup beach
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When it comes to communicating, pinnipeds take the cake. Seals even express their opinions through gestures! Their range of sound frequencies, numerous types of noises, and recognition between parents and their offspring are fantastic. It’s easy for mothers and their pups to lose each other in a crowded colony. Thankfully, a unique song they sing to each other helps them reunite.

The variations in seals’ articulation patterns are melodic and often compared to that of whales and birds. Pinnipeds also create sounds like dogs, squirrels, and wind instruments. Can you believe that these animals even have regional accents? It’s true! Seals communicate with discernably different animal vocalizations depending on which part of the world they live in.

Aquatic Athletes

seal flipper closeup
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Pinnipeds’ athletic abilities amplify their intelligence. These semi-aquatic creatures are highly capable of maneuvering through the water to play, catch their dinner, and avoid becoming something else’s food. Several species travel between 1,300 to 2,000 feet deep while diving. The champions are the northern elephant seals. They reach an astounding 4,900 feet below the water’s surface!

Elephant seals are massive. These behemoths weigh about the same as five great white sharks! Males combat each other for the right to breed through intense physical aggression. They batter each other using their size to land hard blows on their opponent. Male elephant seals’ broad chests and sharp teeth become weapons in the battle for dominance.

Curious Creatures

baby seal penguins
Image Credit: Rod Long on Unsplash

What else makes seals so bright? They are quite curious creatures. These semi-aquatic animals love to explore and play in their surroundings. Their hijinks and creative personalities are entertaining to watch. Pinnipeds’ curiosity also helps trainers teach them how to perform tricks!

Did you know that seals like to listen to music? In captivity, they have been observed keeping time with the beat. They seem to enjoy learning new things in the wild, in public zoos and aquariums, and in scientific research facilities. Pinnipeds exhibit keen observational skills, quick learning abilities, and complex pattern recognition. All-in-all, seals are fun and fascinating animals that are seriously smart!

Jill Horton
By Jill Horton

Jill is a rescue animal advocate and volunteer at Free to Live Animal Sanctuary. Her social media posts contain adoptable dogs and cats from there. Dogs Lucius and Colossus, cats Moses and Maximus, and four parakeets keep her on her toes at home. If you need help finding Jill, check her writing cave. She is likely typing away on her newest article or animal-themed children's book.