Imagine a world much like ours, except our ape ancestors decided they liked the trees and never climbed down and decided to try out these 'tool' things. sapient apes never evolved. Instead a predominately aquatic race evolved (race with limited ability to go on land, such as just long enough to lay eggs, count for this question).

My question is what sort of aquatic species would be the most likely to develop sapience, and what forces would encourage and lead to that development? By sapience I include regular tool use and at least second generation tools (ie, they build tools who's sole job is to build better tools). Communication and basic language of some form should also existed.

What forces would encourage sapience to evolve, despite the caloric expense of it? how would tool use develop, in a land without traditional hands what would be the means of creating and manipulating tools (unless your answer is that the most likely species to develop sapience already has some hand-like features, such as otters).

How would your species adapt as it developed sapience to look/behave different from it's non-sapient ancestor?

This world must be very close to earth, but need not be exactly like earth. It's okay to hypothesis minor differences from our earth; however, the world should predominately look and feel like our planet earth, with most of the same creatures evolving in the same ways and the same habitats and biomes. However, it's perfectly acceptable, for example, to assume that a species split off from a common ancestor of modern animals thousands of generations ago and that species is the one that ultimately achieved sapience.

Any species that predominately lives in and utilizes water, and can not live long term on land, counts for this question. Fish, mammals, aquatic reptiles etc etc all count as potential sapient species.


5 Answers 5


Well dolphins are already pretty smart along with killer whales, appear to be the smartest sea animals. Of course nether at this time seem to have a need for tools, the closest I know of are dolphins using their sonar to stun fish.

Since you mentioned the Otter, they already use tools. I've seen videos of them using rocks to crack open clam shells for an afternoon snack. They also happen to be fairly bright.

One thing both dolphins and otters have in common is a sense of play and often seem to be having fun.

Cephalopods are one of if not the most intelligent invertebrate on the planet. Considering the appendages they have available my bet would be they would be the most likely sea critter to reach sentience.

With all of their appendages and the chromatophore they already need a bit of brain power to keep all this coordinated. They are great at hiding both from predators and prey.


For tool using marine sapients we need three main things:

  1. Dexterous appendages
  2. A technological substitute for fire
  3. A way to dominate their natural marine predators


Try this for a hand: http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-10/coffee-filled-balloon-makes-best-robotic-gripper

Note that you don't need to settle for a single ball - have multiple balls on many tentacles, or branched tentacles each with a ball. Also a mix of large and small balls.


Make tools using biotechnology and symbiotic processes instead of industrial ones. Maybe your lifeform has evolved glands to excrete chemicals to put marine life like corals and plankton to work fashioning tools (knives grown as coral reef formations etc). Or maybe they have symbiotic helpers.

Dominating Predators:

Give your lifeform a serious power up like a huge bio-electricty ability to give eel-like shocks to enemies. The same trait can be used for communication.

Using tools to fight predators underwater is less effective than on land due to the damping effect of water on missile and hand weapons. But an ability to coerce other marine species biologically or whatever may give them an edge.

Developing all the above would require intelligence to make the best use of them.


My question is what sort of aquatic species would be the most likely to develop sapience, and what forces would encourage and lead to that development?

Dolphins, by a decent margin. They are believed to communicate as much as us and use tools already. While they don't design and use "hand made" tools, it is not too far fetched of a concept that some clever dolphin somewhere could be driven by competition and lack of resources to such a degree that it figures this out and spreads the technique.

Since you want this world to lack humans, I suggest you find some way to put extreme selective pressure on Dolphins. A lack of food caused by a natural disaster of some sort could put the pressure on Dolphins to adapt or die. If they adapt, they will likely pass the technique on to their progeny, who will gain an edge over other dolphin groups.

How would they create and manipulate tools?

At first they would use their beaks to move things, however, this isn't the best way to manipulate your environment. The dolphins have fins that used to be legs before they entered the oceans, but these are useful in the ocean so they are likely not going anywhere. Dolphins are pretty accurate with their beaks and tails, so unless you want these animals to develop advanced technology (computers]) which you haven't specified, it should work just fine.

  • $\begingroup$ they don't have second generation tools, they don't have any made tools at all yet. If they were to develop to second and third generation tools wouldn't their inability to manipulate tools with sufficient dexterity to be able to craft better tools be a significant limitation? $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 18:48

An aquatic sapient could evolve from a species that manipulates or "farms" the coral reefs' plant life. A species that learned to manipulate the coral so certain plants would grow in certain areas to facilitate better positioning for hunting the animals that feed on the coral or better growth of the plant life to consume. The need for better methods of altering the plant life and hunting the animals that feed on it could lead to greater intelligence. They could even use the smaller animals to bait the larger animals and use a pack mentality to kill those.

There are no ocean animals that even attempt at manipulating the plant life, nor are there any ocean animals that have a "pack" mentality. (That i could find anyways) I think the main reason that sapient life did not evolve in the ocean is due the the difficulty of "farming" and the individual hunting style that is predominate.


Group bonding: Communication and teamwork are a vital part of the secret sauce. Tool usage: Difficult, as aquatic environments reward non-tool use (streamlined appearance, low weight) and no fire. So a programable corral that grows tools or precursors would be needed for a civilization to develop further. Protection from predators: Predators are always there and they threaten intelligences, so areas were the knowledge is transported (schools) must be protectable. Cages, barbwire, high trees, fire, name your weapon.

In a way we developed at the bottom of a gas ocean too.. so if we can do it.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .