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Dolphins are, by all accounts, awe-inspiring creatures. Perhaps they are even more intelligent than ...
2020-02-11 09:00:00

To Be a Dolphin
In Praise of a Most Intelligent Mammal

To Be a Dolphin

Here is a creature that never sleeps, can see the invisible, and develops consciousness earlier in its life cycle than a human being does.

Read in 12 minutes

For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Recently I had the chance to fulfil a dream of mine – not a particularly original one, as dreams go, but still – I went swimming with dolphins. Not in any barbaric dolphinarium (public aquariums are all barbaric affairs), of course, but in the Red Sea. We had to get up at the crack of dawn and spend three hours in a boat to reach the dolphins early enough to leave them in peace by the early afternoon – when they could get some rest. 

They were the six-foot-long spinner dolphins, named for their acrobatic displays that include jumping above the water line and, well, spinning around. Fidgety dolphins, so to speak. They wouldn’t jump out of the water much, although they did feel relaxed enough for two of them to begin copulating in our presence. On the whole – they didn’t seem to mind us being there.

The experience was surreal rather than mystical: the water was warm, unbelievably blue and perfectly clear. We were surrounded by the beautiful bodies of these champion swimmers, effortlessly appearing from nowhere and disappearing into the unseen depths. It was difficult to believe it wasn’t a dream. Still, what amazed me the most and left a truly lasting impression wasn’t the sights, but rather the sounds. When the dolphins swam close, all other noises were drowned out by the cacophony of their clicks, chirps and whistles.

A few months later, a study was published arguing that even such respectful (it would seem) and non-invasive human contact does bother dolphins after all – since the animals visited by tourists get less rest during the day than those left alone. Learning this left me feeling a bit ashamed, and I wouldn’t repeat the experience now. But the sounds they were making that day will remain among my fondest memories.

Before we try to interpret their clamouring, let’s focus for a moment on who dolphins actually are. Most of us, when we hear the word ‘dolphin’, imagine a common bottlenose: a large grey mammal with a prominent dorsal fin and something of a friendly (one would hope) grin permanently affixed to its distinctive, elongated snout. But the Delphinoidea superfamily is vast and includes approximately 70 different species – from three-foot-long teacup specimens to 25-foot, six-tonne killer whales. Not all dolphins (or their closest relatives) can boast a snout or a triangular dorsal fin, and the vast majority of them aren’t uniformly grey. All of them, however, rank among the Odontoceti, or toothed whales, a parvorder of cetaceans that, unlike most whales, have teeth instead of baleen in their mouths.

It’s their bodies that shrank

Dolphins are generally rather clever. The problem is that we, as humans, tend to appraise the intelligence of other species against our own, that is – we see them as more intelligent the more their behaviour resembles ours. The moment an animal does something that we would do in a given situation, we immediately recognize it as smart. However, as the biologist Lori Marino rightly observes, “Orcas may not be very intelligent humans, but with all certainty humans would make exceptionally stupid orcas.” Put simply, we inhabit very different worlds (the same goes for other humans as well, not only dolphins – even those humans living right next to us), which calls for different sets of cognitive abilities.

Some try to juxtapose the intelligence of different species based on the calculations of the so-called EQ, or encephalization quotient, that is the relative ratio between brain and body mass in animals. This method is not perfect, however, because much depends on the structure of the brain in question, as well as the extent to which particular areas of the organ are developed, not to mention its neural density. All things considered, the encephalization quotient is in fact related to mental ability and, after all, for lack of other methods, it is often the only comparative tool available to us. And, as far as it is concerned, two kinds of mammals seem to stand out from the rest – namely, humans and dolphins. High EQ means that relative to their body size, dolphins have much bigger brains than, say, chimpanzees – although theirs are evidently rather sizable as well. What’s particularly interesting is that studies into the evolutionary history of dolphins suggest that their brains haven’t grown that much in the course of evolution. In the Archaeoceti (the ancestors of present-day cetaceans that inhabited the oceans around 40 million years ago), the EQ was close to the mammalian average, which means that their brains constituted around 1% of their body mass. Thus, as the body mass of prehistoric dolphins started getting smaller, their EQ went up. In other words, as dolphins evolved, it’s not their brains that grew out of proportion, but their bodies that shrank – shrank around big brains inherited from much bigger ancestors. As a result, their cerebral mass makes for 3–4% of their total body mass – just like with humans.

Deep-sea dialects

So far, we haven’t deciphered the language of the dolphins, and we can’t even honestly say something like that exists – at least, in terms of the definition of language used among bipedal linguists. They claim that language has to consist of short elements, or modules, that can be connected in a variety of ways governed by grammar in order to formulate and communicate any given thought, even an abstract one. We haven’t discovered grammar in dolphin communications, but we know for sure that they are able to send each other complex messages about potential dangers, availability of food, ideas for playtime, etc. That’s what the chirps and whistles that surrounded me were.

We do know that at least some dolphin species, for example the common bottlenose, discern unique whistles typical for particular specimens that function like names in their communities. A dolphin whistles its name when communicating with others, but the rest of the school (or pod, as a group of dolphins is called) may use it to attract or summon its bearer. We’ve also ascertained that different populations of one species living in areas distant from each other tend to use different ‘dialects’ of their ‘language’. This has been shown best in orcas, or killer whales. If an orca from the Antarctic was transported to British Columbia, it wouldn’t understand what local whales were chirping or humming about.

Out of all the dolphin species, the killer whale is the best known. Balneologists have discerned a few distinct ecotypes (geographical varieties) of orcas that, even if they happen to inhabit the same area, not only don’t interact with each other at all, but also have different diets and even a different look. I believe the scientific community is on the verge of concluding that killer whales aren’t a single species, but a group thereof, similar to each other, yet genotypically distinct. One argument for this is the fact that genetic testing points to no interbreeding between ecotypes for at least 200,000 years. But even within one ecotype, that is among orcas that look alike and eat the same things, different pods use different sounds to communicate – to the extent that experts can tell which family group they are dealing with based solely on the group’s sound patterns. It has recently been observed that some orcas ‘learn dolphin’, that is, they learn to imitate the sounds made by their smaller cousins, like the bottlenose. What we don’t know, though, is whether they do it in order to be able to play and hunt together with them (as happens with different whale species), or to lull them into a false sense of security and hunt them (as some orcas have been known to do).

Dolphins belong to the exclusive club of animals that pass the so-called mirror test, or mirror self-recognition test (MSR), used to determine whether a subject is self-aware. Test subjects are marked with odourless paint somewhere they normally wouldn’t be able to see the mark, say on the forehead or below the snout. It’s important that the subject doesn’t retain awareness during the marking process, so it’s mostly done under anaesthesia. When it comes to dolphins, however, this process presents a considerable challenge, as cetaceans (like many aquatic vertebrates that breathe atmospheric air) breathe consciously – for them, it’s not a reflexive process like it is for us. This helps with diving and is generally a great adaptation to the animals’ aquatic environment, but it does have unpleasant side effects. A dolphin rendered unconscious would simply drown, because it would forget to breathe. That’s why they can’t allow themselves the oblivion of deep sleep, and, like sea birds, when they actually do fall asleep, it’s only one of the hemispheres of their brains that nods off. While one hemisphere rests, then, the other remembers not to suffocate. When sedating a dolphin, one must therefore proceed with utmost caution.

Photo by Angela Ziltener, Dolphin Watch Alliance
Photo by Angela Ziltener, Dolphin Watch Alliance

Once the sedated animal is successfully marked and recovers from the anaesthetic, it is shown itself in a mirror. If the subject doesn’t react at all or tries to wipe the mark from its reflection’s forehead, it fails the mirror test. But if it starts rubbing its own forehead, or – like with dolphins that lack the appendages necessary for such an operation – twists and turns to better see the mark in the reflection, we can conclude it is self-aware and recognizes the fact that its reflection and itself are one. So far, apart from dolphins, the only animals to have successfully passed the MSR have been some of the Corvidae (birds of the crow family), chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants and pigeons. And us, of course, but dolphins are early bloomers compared to humans – the youngest dolphins to pass the MSR were seven months old, whereas human children manage it only around the age of 18 months. In a sense, this proves dolphins are smarter than us in some ways. Or at least they get smart quicker.

The melon and the phonic lips

Almost all cetaceans can boast a well-developed sense of sight, but only toothed whales have been known to use this most impressive evolutionary sensory tool: echolocation. Their domed foreheads conceal a special organ called the melon, a deposit of fat that acts like an acoustic lens, focusing the short, sharp, high-frequency sounds produced by another special organ, the phonic lips, located in the animal’s airways. That’s where the clicks I heard came from. Dolphins can precisely regulate the direction and strength of the signal they thus send through the water. The sound waves bounce back from any objects they encounter and return to the sender as echoes. Those echoes are picked up by the cetacean’s jawbone and travel up its throat, via special bone structures and dedicated tissues, straight to the inner ear and the brain, where they are analysed in great detail by areas similar to those that process visual information in our brains. The dolphins’ bio sonar is so precise that it not only gives them full information about their surroundings, but also lets them ‘look’ under the ocean floor or inside other beings. These amazing creatures are able to tell a copper disc from an aluminium one from a distance of more than 90 metres, find and retrieve objects buried in the sea bed, or notice broken bones in their comrades or in their prey. To me, the most touching thought is that in their close-knit family pods, dolphins, who develop very strong emotional and intellectual bonds with their relatives, can not only tell when a friendly female is pregnant, but also ‘watch’ the growth of the unborn future member of their community.

Grandma rules

Out of all the Delphinidae communities, the ones that we know the most about are those formed by killer whales, or orcas. The leaders of such matrilineal family groups are called grandmothers. The oldest of those, named Granny, was last seen a few years ago, and at that point she was at least 103 years old. Killer whales are among the few species of mammals (including humans and elephants) whose females go through menopause and continue to live long after they stop breeding. The wisdom and experience of such grandmothers benefits their entire extended families – those pods made up of their daughters, granddaughters, great granddaughters, and males that tend not to leave their mothers’ sides their entire lives, removing themselves from the pods only for short periods of time to mate outside the familial gene pool. When Granny died (as is assumed), her family pod became despondent and all but broke up. None of the surviving members wanted to take the lead. It wasn’t until a few months later that one of Granny’s daughters found herself in the leadership position, when the rest of the pod started following her. Let me tell you one thing – if I believed in reincarnation, I would like to be reborn as an orca and grow up in a loving family, among witty whale conversations.

Because of the family bonds Delphinidae develop, as well as their intelligence, longevity and communication abilities, scientists refer to them as having a culture, without adorning the word with cheapening inverted commas. One of the most convincing and elementary definitions of culture is the transfer of information between individuals in ways other than genetic heredity. Thus understood, culture crops up among countless dolphin communities. Antarctic orcas teach their young how to coordinate their efforts in order to create waves strong enough to wash seals off the safety of ice floes. Their cousins from around the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina have a unique hunting technique, whereby they beach themselves on purpose to hunt unsuspecting otariid and elephant seal pups. Other dolphin species teach each other how to trap fish by stirring up seafloor sediment around them, or how to put sea sponges on their snouts in order not to get hurt while digging for food in the sea bed. Asiatic bottlenose dolphins have discovered and spread the information that one can get high off the neurotoxins secreted by puffer fish (all it takes is to bite the fish gently or nudge it with one’s snout), but the less I write about that, the better.

It shouldn’t come as strange, then, that dolphins have made their way into our culture as well. They appear in the myths shared by many coastal nations and their presence therein is mostly positive. There have been at least a few recorded occasions on which wild dolphins rescued drowning people. In some parts of the world, fishermen, and sometimes even whalers, would enter into almost symbiotic relationships with dolphins, whereby the latter would flush the game for the former to catch and share with them.

In modern-day mythology dolphins are styled as nigh-perfect beings, much nobler than humans. This perception was popularized in the 1960s by John C. Lilly, an American physician and psychonaut. Despite his many attempts that included, among others, consuming large amounts of LSD and feeding the same drug to dolphins, Lilly didn’t manage to produce a human-dolphin dictionary, nor to prove his belief that these animals were actually beings of cosmic wisdom. This failure notwithstanding, the idea that dolphins are somehow special has successfully taken root in our culture.

One could venture the hypothesis that our sympathy for these fascinating sea mammals stems from something far more prosaic. It so happens that the corners of many Delphinidae species’ ‘mouths’ tend to curl slightly upwards, making them look as if they are permanently smiling. This friendly dolphin grin exists only in our heads, however. It’s just the shape of their jaws.

That’s why even the saddest, suffering dolphins still look and seem happy to us, even if they are held prisoners in sea park aquaria and forced to perform acrobatics for the amusement of the biped mob. The dolphins’ ‘smile’ is their curse. It’s really not that difficult to imagine how those thinking and feeling creatures, used to swimming in the open sea, must suffer confined to cramped pools, snatched far away from their loving families. Let us also ponder for a moment how scarring it must be for the psyche of a being that sees the world through sounds and echoes to be locked up in a small space surrounded by artificial walls.

Friendly and cruel

Dolphins do indeed enter into friendly interactions with other species, including ours. At the same time, however, adolescent bottlenose males are, for example, known to kill their smaller distant cousins, porpoises, for no apparent reason. The species neither compete for food, nor do the dolphins eat the porpoises, which leads to the conclusion that bottlenoses murder the lesser cetaceans just for the ghoulish fun of it – much like human trophy hunters. As it turns out, dolphins have far more in common with us than we would like to admit. They are not good or evil by nature – they simply are themselves, yet we will probably never know what it really means to be a dolphin. I imagine, although it pains me greatly, that this state of consciousness must, year after year, be getting sadder and sadder. We know dolphins to be self-aware creatures, after all. Those unfortunate slaves locked in dolphin aquaria aside, even the ones living in the wild must be able to see that the world around them is changing for the worse. In his novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the brilliant Douglas Adams depicted an event that’s been making more and more sense to me recently. At some point before the destruction of our desolate planet, its dolphin inhabitants decide to leave for space, leaving humanity but one message: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” I believe that if they could really leave the Earth, dolphins would do so in the blink of an eye, and theirs would be a thankless goodbye. We, as humanity, really have been doing everything in our power to deserve their contempt.

Let us do at least one good thing, then – stop visiting dolphinaria.


Translated from the Polish by Karolina Sofulak

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Mikołaj Golachowski

is a polar explorer with a PhD in natural sciences, who spends four months every year in Antarctica and in the Arctic. Mikołaj writes about nature for both children and adults. His latest books are “Czochralem antarktycznego słonia” [I’ve Ruffled an Antarctic Elephant] (Marginesy, 2016) and “Gęby, dzioby i nochale” [Gobs, Beaks and Schnozzes] (Babaryba, 2016).