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Do Dolphins Carry On Conversations?

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We all like to think we know what other animals are saying. “Leave my acorn alone!” screams the squirrel on the sidewalk. “I’m so glad you’re home!” cheers your dog when you walk in the door. But the truth is that we don’t actually know. Animal communication researchers have made enormous advances in the last few decades, but there is still plenty to learn. So when one scientist said he’d found evidence of human-like dialogue in dolphins, experts raised an eyebrow.

Dolphins are incredibly smart animals, although they don’t always use their considerable intellect for good. They’re also very social, which means that communication is vital to their survival. Their clicks and whistles have a range of uses, from calling pod members to signaling an attack on some hapless shark. Each dolphin has its own signature whistle, which acts like its name, and some recent research suggests that female dolphins start teaching their calves their own names before they’re even born.

Author Vyacheslav Ryabov, of the T. I. Vyazemsky Karadag Scientific Station in Ukraine, was interested in the casual dolphin-to-dolphin discussions of Yana and Yasha, two of the station’s captive bottlenose dolphins. He used underwater microphones to record the dolphins’ chatter as they floated near the edge of their pool, then analyzed the rhythms and frequencies of each dolphin’s noises.

Ryabov concluded that Yana and Yasha were carrying on a sophisticated, human-like conversation, in which each dolphin waited for the other to finish its “sentence” before starting to speak.

“Dolphins have possessed brains that are somewhat larger and more complex than human ones for more than 25 million years,” he writes. “Due to this, for further research in this direction, humans must take the first step to establish relationships with the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet Earth by creating devices capable of overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of using languages and in the way of communications between dolphins and people.”

Dolphin translator technology isn't quite as far-fetched as it sounds; researchers at the Wild Dolphin Project have been fine-tuning one such device for years. And the idea that dolphins don’t interrupt each other is not new. Still, Ryabov took it to the next level, veering into somewhat zany and hyperbolic territory, and other researchers are pretty turned off by both his utopian vision of dolphin-human brotherhood and his somewhat primitive research methods.

“It is complete bull,” marine biologist Richard Connor told Jason Bittel at National Geographic. Other experts, like Wild Dolphin Project research director Denise Herzing, were slightly more diplomatic in their language.

“This article does not present adequate data to make conclusions about dolphin sound structure or language,” she said in a statement to mental_floss. “Although we applaud the author for exploring dolphin vocalizations with some new methods, we urge caution regarding these conclusions and look forward to the day when we put the question of nonhuman animal language to the test.”

And then there's the paper's suspiciously short review period. The journal that published it, the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics, notes that the article was submitted August 16 and published a mere five days later, which suggests the journal eschewed any peer review process.

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Crouch Forward When They’re Playing?
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Whether they're tilting their heads or exposing their bellies for rubs, dogs are experts at looking adorable. But these behaviors do more than elicit squeals from delighted humans; in many cases, they serve important evolutionary functions. A prime example is the "play bow": If you've ever seen a dog crouch forward with its elbows on the ground and its rear end in the air, wagging tail and all, then you know what it is. The position is the ultimate sign of playfulness, which is important for a species that often uses playtime as practice for attacking prey.

The play bow first evolved in canids as a form of communication. When a dog sees another dog it wants to play with, it extends its front paws forward and lifts up its behind as a visual invitation to engage in a friendly play session. Dogs will "bow" in the middle of playtime to show that they're having fun and wish to continue, or when a session has paused to signal they want to pick it back up. Play bows can also be a sort of apology: When the roughhousing gets too rough, a bow says, “I’m sorry I hurt you. Can we keep playing?”

Play between canines often mimics aggression, and starting off in a submissive position is a way for all participating parties to make sure they’re on the same page. It’s easy to see why such a cue would be useful; the more puzzling matter for researchers is why the ancestors of modern dogs evolved to play in the first place. One theory is that play is crucial to the social, cognitive, and physical development of puppies [PDF]. It’s an opportunity for them to interact with their own kind and learn important behaviors, like how to moderate the strength of their bites. Play also requires the animals to react quickly to new circumstances and assess complex actions from other dogs.

Shiba inus playing outside.
Taro the Shiba Inu, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Another evolutionary explanation is that playtime prepares puppies for the hunting they do later as adults. Watch two puppies play and you’ll see them stalking, biting, and pouncing on one another—all behaviors canines exhibit in the wild when taking down prey.

Of course, it’s also possible that dogs simply play because it’s fun. This is a strong case for why pet dogs continue to play into adulthood. “Devoting a lot of time to play may be less advantageous for a wild species who spends much of its time hunting or foraging for food, searching for mates, or avoiding predators,” Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, tells Mental Floss. “Many domestic dogs are provisioned by humans, and so have more time and energy to devote to play as adults.”

Because play is a lifelong activity for domestic dogs, owners of dogs of all ages have likely seen the play bow in person. Wild canids, like wolves, foxes, and coyotes, tend to reserve this behavior for members of their own species, but pet dogs often break out the bow for their humans—or anyone else who looks like they might be up for a play session. Grigg says, “One of my dogs regularly play bows to her favorite of our cats.”

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Animals
Why Crows Hold Noisy Funerals for Their Fallen Friends
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The next time you hear a murder of crows cackling for no apparent reason, show a little respect: You may have stumbled onto a crow funeral. Crows are among the few animals that exhibit a social response to a dead member of their species. Though their caws may sound like heartbroken cries, such funerals aren't so much about mourning their fallen friends as they are about learning from their mistakes.

In the video below from the PBS series Deep Look, Kaeli Swift, a researcher at the University of Washington's Avian Conservation Lab, investigates this unusual phenomenon firsthand. She familiarized herself with a group of crows in a Seattle park by feeding them peanuts in the same spot for a few days. After the crows got used to her visits, she returned to the site holding a dead, taxidermied crow and wearing a mask and wig to hide her identity. The crows immediately started their ritual by gathering in the trees and crying in her direction. According to Swift, this behavior is a way for crows to observe whatever might have killed the dead bird and learn to avoid the same fate. Flocking into a large, noisy group provides them protection from the threat if it's still around.

She tested her theory by returning to the same spot the next week without her mask or the stuffed crow. She offered the crows peanuts just as she had done before, only this time the birds were skittish and hesitant to take them from her. The idea that crows remember and learn from their funerals was further supported when she returned wearing the mask and wig. Though she didn't have the dead bird with her this time, the crows were still able to recognize her and squawked at her presence. Even birds that weren't at the funeral learned from the other birds' reactions and joined in the ruckus.

Swift was lucky this group of crows wasn't particularly vengeful. Crows have been known to nurse and spread grudges, sometimes dive-bombing people that have harmed one of their own.

[h/t Deep Look]

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