STEM Tuesday: Foolish Humans, Dolphin Wisdom

Dolphin show
Dolphin show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Musing to my self, and sometimes out loud, I wonder ‘what’s it all for?’ All this working and thinking and buying and commuting and bustling and getting and going and giving and learning and doing.  Why do we do this?

Tongue in cheek, sort of, I wonder if perhaps the dolphins are laughing at us when they give us that Flipper Ehhh–ehh-ehh-eh, and wave their friendly fins and grin their perpetual grins.  Perhaps they know more than we.  “Relax, take off your clothes.  Come for a swim.  Everything you need is here.”  I imagine the dolphin society laughing at humans; for all of our toiling is nothing more than futile vanity. After all, dolphins have large brains; considering the brain to mass ratio they are one of the smartest animals on the planet.

The May 2015 National Geographic confirms that dolphins are pretty darned intelligent. Scientists still argue about whether their clicks, whistles, and chirps can be translated into a language, but one thing is for certain: Dolphins know how to communicate.

As biophysicist Lori Marino says, [tweetthis]”A dolphin alone is not really a dolphin.”[/tweetthis] Dolphins have such a complex social network, that the survival of the individual depends on being in the clan. When one is in trouble, the whole neighborhood responds.

Almost everyone knows that dolphins can be trained to do tricks.  They can also innovate.  Dolphins that know how to corkscrew, skeet backward, and wave, given the signal to innovate, come up with their own series of tricks.  More amazing, two dolphins trained to obey the innovate signal, “discuss,” using audible chirps, surface and do the same series of tricks in unison.  Not only that, the dolphin pair seems to know they are supposed to come up with a new series of tricks each time they get the innovate signal.  Holy mackerel! Exactly how they communicate is still a mystery, but that they do is, indeed, a fact.

Dolphins are mammals, like we are.  They have large brains, like we do.  Like humans, dolphins are among the most intelligent animals on the planet.  But, we haven’t had a common ancestor for about 50 million years.

Dolphins form friendships.  Males act as wingmen for each other during courting. A friendship can last for decade, but at the same time, a dolphins friend today, may not be her friend tomorrow. A lot about friendship is situational, which requires a lot of relationship brain-power.

Scientists believe [tweetthis]dolphins use a signature series of whistles to give themselves a unique name[/tweetthis].  No other animal, besides humans, is believed to have specific names for each other.

Denise Herzing, who National Geographic calls a “veritable Jane Goodall” to the dolphin world, studied a group of 300 dolphins for decades.  When she was 12 years old, Herzing said she wanted to develop a human animal translator, “so we can understand other minds on the planet.”  She’s worked on an instrument called CHAT (cetacean hearing and telemetry) which has a small speaker and keyboard on its face and two hydrophones.  She records dolphin sounds and tries to teach the dolphins to make the sounds for certain objects she’s programmed into CHAT. Herzing calls to the dolphins with some of their own, recorded signature whistles (or names) and sure enough, two show up.  Herzing’s name for these two are Meridian and Nereide.

Herzing drops a scarf in the water and uses CHAT to repeat the series of whistles that means “scarf” to her.  Meridian and Nereide engage playfully with Herzing, tossing the scarf around, draping it over their tails, and passing it back and forth.  Neither dolphin repeat the signature whistles that mean “scarf.” After a while they lose interest and swim off.

Herzing says “You can almost see them calculating in their eyes, trying to work it out.” She thinks it’s just a matter of time, before the dolphins learn this artificial language.

Perhaps the dolphins are trying to work something else out.  Perhaps their whistles and clicks are saying to each other, “What is all this stress about?  I wish she would just take off her clothes, relax, and swim.  Everything she needs is right here in the ocean.”

For more about dolphins, go to or click here.