Dolphins: The Humans of the Sea

The following article is republished from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader.

Ever since he first saw Flipper in the 1960s, Uncle John has been fascinated by dolphins. He’s not alone- some scientists think dolphins are humans’ closest relatives. Whether they are or not, we’ve still got a lot in common.


Few other animals evoke such mystery and curiosity as the dolphin. The more we study them, the more we want to know about them. We know that dolphins live 30 to 40 years. They have a distinct social structure, traveling in flexible groups of between 6 and 12 called pods. Young dolphins stay with their mothers for three years or longer before moving on to a new pod. Yet, remarkably, a daughter will often return to her mother’s group to have her first calf.

A dolphin’s cerebral cortex -the portion of the brain that plans, thinks, and imagines- is larger than a human’s and, indeed, dolphins are adept at planning, thinking, and imagining. According to professional trainers, there is no limit to what a dolphin can learn.

(Image credit: Flickr user Michael S)

Here are some amazing examples of dolphin intelligence:

* Dolphins learn quickly. Two dolphins at Sea Life Park in Hawaii knew entirely different routines. One day the trainer accidentally switched the two dolphins and didn’t know why they seemed so nervous about performing the stunts. One dolphin, trained to jump through a hoop 12 feet in the air, refused to jump at all until she lowered it to 6 feet. The other seemed shaky about navigating through an underwater maze while blindfolded. Not until the show was over did the trainer discover the error. The dolphin who had jumped through the 6-foot-high hoop had not been trained to go through a hoop at all. The other dolphin was familiar with the blindfold but had never navigated the underwater maze. Yet, somehow, each had figured out how to perform the other’s tricks before the end of the routine.

* Dolphins can learn sign language. They can understand syntax and sentence structure, knowing the difference between “Pipe fetch surfboard” (“Fetch the pipe and take it to the surfboard”) and “Surfboard fetch pipe” (“Fetch the surfboard and take it to the pipe”). When asked, “Is there a ball in the pool?” the dolphin is able to indicate yes or no -meaning it has understood the language, formed a mental image of the object referred to, and deduced whether the object is or is not there. This is called referential reporting and is otherwise only documented in apes and humans.

(Image credit: Flickr user César Astudillo)

* Dolphins consistently demonstrate imagination and creativity. At the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab in Hawaii, two young trainers were working with a pair of bottle nose dolphins named Akeakemai and Phoenix. The trainers got the dolphin’s attentions and then, together, they tapped two fingers of each hand together, making the symbol for “in tandem.” They both threw their arms in the air, the sign language gesture that means “creative.”

The instruction was “do something creative together.” The two dolphins broke away and began swimming around the tank together. Then in perfect choreography they leapt high into the air while simultaneously spitting water out of their mouths. Because dolphins don’t normally carry water in their mouths, the move had to be planned and synchronized before they left the water, proving that this was not a matter of two dolphins playing follow-the-leader. When other games of “Tandem Creative” were played, the dolphins did such things as backpedaling and then waving their tail flukes, or doing simultaneous backflips. The trainers were always surprised.

* Dolphins have a sophisticated language of their own. Dr. Jarvis Bastain, a University of California psychologist, taught a game to two dolphins named Doris and Buzz. They were instructed to press one lever (on the left) when they saw a flashing light and another lever (on the right) when they saw a steady light. Then he taught them a new twist: when the light came on, Doris had to wait until Buzz pressed his lever, then she could press her lever. When they had this down pat, Dr. Bastain placed a barrier between the two dolphins so they couldn’t see each other and only Doris could see the light. When the lights flashed, Doris waited for Buzz to press his lever. Buzz, not knowing the light was on, did nothing. Doris then gave off a burst of whistles and clicks, and Buzz immediately pressed the correct lever. And he pulled the correct lever every time the test was repeated.

(Image credit: Flickr user Bryce Bradford)

* Dolphins play jokes. Dolphins in a San Francisco oceanarium were taught to “clean house,” each receiving a reward of fish for each piece of trash they brought to their trainer. A dolphin named Mr. Spock kept bringing in soggy bits of paper, getting reward after reward. The trainer finally discovered that the dolphin had hidden a brown paper bag in a corner of the pool and was earning dividends by tearing off tiny pieces, one at a time.

At Busch Gardens in Florida, scuba diving “janitors” periodically entered the dolphin tank with large underwater vacuum cleaners to pick up debris from the bottom on the pool. On one occasion, the divers were puzzled because they were unable to find any garbage. Only the observers above the tank could see that a dolphin named Zippy was going in front of the divers, just out of their sight, picking up pieces of trash and transferring them to the area behind the divers, which they had already swept.

(Image credit: Dennis Otten)

* Dolphins enjoy playing games. They have been observed playing catch, tag, and keep-away. They’ve been known to sneak up on birds resting on the surface of the ocean and grab them by the feet, pulling them under before releasing them. They intercept swimming turtles, turning them over and over. Once, two dolphins in an aquarium wanted to play with a moray eel, but the eel was hiding in a crevice under a rock where they couldn’t reach it. One dolphin picked up a dead scorpionfish and poked at the eel with the spines. The eel swam into the ocean, where it was caught by the dolphins and teased until being released.

(Image credit: Flickr user James Burchill)

* Dolphins are affectionate. Researchers observing them in the wild have noted that a large part of a dolphin’s day is spent in physical contact with other dolphins. They swim belly to belly or side by side, sometime looking like they are holding “hands.” They rub their bodies together, pet each other with their fins and flukes, and enjoy sex for the pleasure of it.

(Image credit: Flickr user John Liu)

* Dolphins echo the worst of human nature. The world of dolphins is not all sweetness and light. Just as with humans, there seems to be a wide variation in dolphins’ behavior toward members of their own species. Some dolphins exhibit violent aggression and fight with others by ramming and biting them, sometimes to the point of death. Male dolphins occasionally build harems, and one researcher even documented a case of a male kidnapping a female and holding her captive. Groups of strong males may gang up on young, smaller dolphins, harassing them. Adult males will sometimes kill infants fathered by another male. They are also consummate predators, ruthless in their kills, and have been known to kill for reasons other than hunger.

* Dolphins also echo the best of human nature. There are documented instances of dolphins coming to the aid of other dolphins. Healthy dolphins will support an injured or sick dolphin to the surface, helping it breathe. If one member of a pod becomes entangled in a fishing net, others will come to its assistance, often becoming entangle themselves. Female dolphins will guard another female who’s giving birth. There are also many instances on record of dolphins coming to the aid of humans in trouble.

(YouTube link)

In November 1999, twelve Cubans boarded a small boat in an attempt to escape to the United States.  Rough seas sank the boat, drowning most of the people on board. The mother of 5-year-old Elian Gonzales stuck him inside an inner tube. When rescuers found him, he was surrounded by dolphins who had broken waves for him and driven away sharks for the two terrible days he had floated alone in the ocean.


This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader.

Get ready to be thoroughly entertained while occupied on the throne. Uncle John rules the world of information and humor. It's simply Ahh-Inspiring!

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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