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Dolphins Call Each Other By Name (discovery.com)
414 points by rblion on Feb 20, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 154 comments

They are also known to build difficult to make toys (air bubble vortex rings) to entertain themselves.

They have to discover how to make it. Sometimes they can be quite possessive, they would break the toy if someone not so knowledgeable wants to play with it. Once a dolphin figures it out how to make one, his/her peers eventually figure it out too. So it kind of spreads within a group like fashion. This behavior has been observed both in captivity and in the wild.

https://www.google.com/search?q=dolphin+vortex+ring (a time sink right here)

They also have what appears to be fratricide were they bludgeon another to death targeting vital organs (I dont have a reference to this, but I recall reading it on BBC).

I have seen dumber people on and around TV.

I am sure there are HN'ers who are divers and have first had experience with dolphins, we would love to hear the stories.

> They also have what appears to be fratricide were they bludgeon another to death targeting vital organs

Apparently Orcas have developed this Kung-fu like thing, where they can kill a shark by just holding it.


This is a form of "tonic immobility" in sharks (chickens have the same reaction if held whilst looking at a line drawn away from them)

It's an attempt to feign death / stand immobile whilst danger passes.

Its effective in sharks as they need water passing over their gills so if they stop swimming they are dependant on current.

Of course orcas are big enough to turn a shark over - your average guy in a chain mail suit tries this with Jaws' older brother and it's three months of trying to get steel rings out of your teeth


"With tiger sharks 3–4 metres (10 to 15 feet) in length, tonic immobility may be achieved by placing hands lightly on the sides of the animal's snout approximate to the general area surrounding its eyes."

Nah, that sounds easy.. ^^

I have a plan - we post the above link on Reddit then we put a hundred bucks on what the next Darwin Award winner dies of


Since the great white shark needs to move to breathe [1] I assume that holding one long enough would cause it to suffocate, right?

[1] http://science.howstuffworks.com/zoology/marine-life/shark-d...

As someone who has seen a great white shark underwater from 15 feet away (shark caging), I can safely say that there is no human alive capable of holding a great white shark still. There is simply no stopping a 20ft long, 4000lb., aquatic dinosaur. Unless you're an orca I suppose.

One of the most impressive and intimidating animals I have ever seen.

> Unless you're an orca I suppose.

I don't care if you're a big bad orca. If you can kill a freakin Great White Shark by holding it, that's some mf badass Kung-fu shit right there. Orcas are big and strong, but they're just flesh and bone. It's not like they're armor plated, or have electrified dive cages. It's just them, this technique, and a 5000 pound thrashing, efficiently killing, natural flesh sawing machine. Sure, they weigh like 2.5 times as much, but it would still be like me subduing an attack dog with some kind of technique. I outweigh it, but it's still scary. Personally, I'd rather just be far, far away.

I recommend reading "The Devils Teeth" http://www.amazon.com/The-Devils-Teeth-Obsession-Survival/dp...

Excusing the anthropomorphisation, one interesting tidbit is that the great whites have different personalities. Some were just plain mean while others were playful.

I found it odd that the author thought that was cruel of the Orcas. I assume they are referring to the waste, but that is pretty common for all animals.

I went to a dolphin show at the Vancouver Aquarium a few years back and wandered near the dolphin pool after the show. I saw one dolphin playing with what looked like a tiny piece of thread that accidentally fell into the pool. He was spitting it out, watching it dance through the water, quickly sucking it in only to spit it out and watch it wiggle, over and over. He was just entertaining himself and having a good time.

They're incredible animals.

I wonder (seriously) if I learned to create these rings myself, would I earn mad dolphin cred?

Once humans can do it, it's probably no longer cool.

I bet they'd think it hilarious if you could fart them.

The wikipedia article on them says that divers can create them too, with the aid of scuba gear.

I wonder if there is a wider gap between the smartest and dumbest humans, and the equivalent extremes in other species?

At our best, we accomplish astonishing things that melt brains to consider. However, the worst of us really are little more than what they would call (with derision) "animals", responding to base urges and the like, but dangerous, vindictive and controlling.

"...dangerous, vindictive and controlling..."

I think the low end of human "intelligence" is something other than what you are talking about here. I think the low end of human "intelligence" would generally be associated with something more akin to mental retardation. Whereas what you're pointing out is more... like the behavior of a sociopath.

Dangerous, vindictive and controlling is not a sign of a lack of intelligence... in fact... it's probably the opposite I would imagine.

Maybe it's not that, at our worst, we're capable of being so much worse than animals, but that we can just do it so well. Or the disappointment that many could do better with a little thought, but don't think much. And there are probably comparative examples of each thing in the "animal kingdom" too.

Resorting quickly to violence to get our way (schoolyard thugs) or to get revenge or to intimidate (posturing gangs). Setting up cultish situations to dominate women and reap rewards of power, money and more (creepy sects). Online bullying (all over the place), gossip, etc.

> Dangerous, vindictive and controlling is not a sign of a lack of intelligence... in fact... it's probably the opposite I would imagine.

I am not sure I understand why you think this way.

Lying, manipulating, and tricking ("outsmarting") others require considerable theory of mind, persuasive ability, creativity, and conscientious problem-solving execution. A dumb person is not able to perform these activities well.

Understanding others, showing sympathy and compassion, being capable of working with other people with a common goal without conflict certainly require wits as well. Don't you think? It was even supposed not so long ago that dog brains grew larger over time because of their constant social contact with humans.

I would quote a passage from an online novel:

" In the beginning, before people had quite understood how evolution worked, they'd gone around thinking crazy ideas like human intelligence evolved so that we could invent better tools.

The reason why this was crazy was that only one person in the tribe had to invent a tool, and then everyone else would use it, and it would spread to other tribes, and still be used by their descendants a hundred years later. That was great from the perspective of scientific progress, but in evolutionary terms, it meant that the person who invented something didn't have much of a fitness advantage, didn't have all that many more children than everyone else. Only relative fitness advantages could increase the relative frequency of a gene in the population, and drive some lonely mutation to the point where it was universal and everyone had it. And brilliant inventions just weren't common enough to provide the sort of consistent selection pressure it took to promote a mutation. It was a natural guess, if you looked at humans with their guns and tanks and nuclear weapons and compared them to chimpanzees, that the intelligence was there to make the technology. A natural guess, but wrong.

Before people had quite understood how evolution worked, they'd gone around thinking crazy ideas like the climate changed, and tribes had to migrate, and people had to become smarter in order to solve all the novel problems.

But human beings had four times the brain size of a chimpanzee. 20% of a human's metabolic energy went into feeding the brain. Humans were ridiculously smarter than any other species. That sort of thing didn't happen because the environment stepped up the difficulty of its problems a little. Then the organisms would just get a little smarter to solve them. Ending up with that gigantic outsized brain must have taken some sort of runaway evolutionary process, something that would push and push without limits.

And today's scientists had a pretty good guess at what that runaway evolutionary process had been.

Harry had once read a famous book called Chimpanzee Politics. The book had described how an adult chimpanzee named Luit had confronted the aging alpha, Yeroen, with the help of a young, recently matured chimpanzee named Nikkie. Nikkie had not intervened directly in the fights between Luit and Yeroen, but had prevented Yeroen's other supporters in the tribe from coming to his aid, distracting them whenever a confrontation developed between Luit and Yeroen. And in time Luit had won, and become the new alpha, with Nikkie as the second most powerful...

...though it hadn't taken very long after that for Nikkie to form an alliance with the defeated Yeroen, overthrow Luit, and become the new new alpha.

It really made you appreciate what millions of years of hominids trying to outwit each other - an evolutionary arms race without limit - had led to in the way of increased mental capacity. "

- http://hpmor.com/chapter/24

Because history (esp. European history I guess) will show you that brilliant techies have done really cruel things.

Yet history shows that the greatest "techies" (Kepler, Newton, Galileo, and others) did not work alone and were certainly depending on others to establish their theories and measurements - and many were very much "humanists" and universal thinkers who cared very little about politics and frontiers. Even Einstein who was a key player in developing nuclear power was against any use of it in military conflict. So, I would like to see your list of brilliant and yet cruel techies.

I believe Newton and Galileo worked alone for much of their lives. Kepler was far more intellectually generous.

Newton was certainly known to be a recluse, but he was a teacher in university and spread knowledge around him. Besides, all his work rested on centuries of work before him and he recognized the heritage of others in his discoveries.

Because he doesn't equate "intelligence" with "good".

Any supporting evidence ?

Intelligence[1] "the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills"

Good[2] "that which is morally right; righteousness"

Intelligence relates to an ability to do something, Good (in this context) relates to a moral judgement. They may be related in that to do Good you may need Intelligence, but its conceivable that someone could have Intelligence but may not be Good, or vice versa.



Any thread on dolphins is not complete without a link to the 1992 NYT article on dolphins: [http://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/18/science/dolphin-courtship-...]

Here's the sad part: none of this is new. 1992. 1992. Over twenty years ago.

As children they make a best friend for life, they form complicated alliances for mutual benefit, they form political alliances/gangs, they help each other out both tit-for-tat and "pro-bono" while keep score of debts (I help you today, you will owe me at some undefined point in the future), they group together to accomplish tasks (sometimes/often at the expense of other dolphins, for instance a female they are trying to get with).

Another important study was done to research the presence (or lack thereof) of a universal dolphin "language" (EDIT: found source! [http://wakeup-world.com/2011/11/28/the-discovery-of-dolphin-...] but not peer reviewed research). It involved showing dolphins in one aquarium a sequence of objects (red ball, green box, etc.) and recording the sounds made, then travelling to another aquarium with dolphins that have never been in contact with the first and playing back the sounds made, then watching the dolphins "locate" or "identify" the object the sounds were made in response to. They achieved an astonishing (if memory serves!) 86% accuracy rate implying audible descriptions of objects, much in the same manner that a "bee dance" can be universally understood across hives/colonies except it's based on actual sounds rather than movements.</cannot find source>

Regardless of whether or not you feel dolphins deserve the title of "non-human sentient beings" (whatever "sentient" means, it's such a non-word), I think anyone involved in the mass slaughter of dolphins in an attempt to ransom money should be imprisoned for being a killer (Reference: 900 dolphins killed in Solomon Islands as black mail for raise in pay negotiations. Sorry, but f* them [ http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&... ])

much in the same manner that a "bee dance" can be universally understood across hives/colonies except it's based on actual sounds rather than movements.

This actually makes them less like humans. Almost all social animals have instinctive ways to communicate. Think of it as hard-coded stuff which does not need to be learned. A bee is born knowing to communicate using dancing.

What makes humans different is that we don't have universally shared words for anything. Neither objects, nor squares, nor colors.

Very large language families like Indo-European can share many root words. But no word is universally shared or instinctively understood. All must be learned.

That article says they use dolphins for meat and income. It seems a little easy to sit in an armchair next to a fridge full of supermarket-bought food and complain about what islanders do to eat. Presumably, the money they claim they weren't paid would've been used on other sources of food, and when unpaid, went back to what they were doing before, with a little extra effort to piss off the non payers.

While i'm not sure i agree with you or the grand-parent post†, i think your argument doesn't help refuting the grand-parent's main point.

ComputerGuru's main point was showing how similar dolphins are to humans, in the way they live and socialize, and stating that, because of those reasons, killing them is wrong. Yes, they might be doing it for their own living, but that doesn't make it any less wrong. In the end, we all work for our food, or to cover our needs in general, but that does not justify the work of paid assassins for example, or any other job that directly threatens other humans' lives.

† I'm kind of in a cognitive dissonance state about killing animals for eating, as i do consider animals to be not different in essence to humans --i think that our difference are only quantitative instead of qualitative-- but at the same time i eat animal meat, so i'm contributing to their killing.

Well, you need a human to make a difference.

Does parasite gives a shit what meat he is eating, dolphin or human. Does human gives shit what meat he is eating, usually not until you give him pretty pictures and moral books and tell what to do.

Children love meat, children can watch how pig is squeaking and is slaughtered, split open and chopped up, it is more of wow event that anything else. Same pig yesterday he rode and and considered a friend, had a name for it.(this is nothing to do with children who live in boxes, this is children in farm environment, hunter environment).

Still, human is interesting, because sharks do not hunt human for food, if they bite one it is more or less curiosity. Same with many other predator species, it is like human is somehow ignored.

Yet, only we can make sense out of it. By giving it the meaning.

But everything is opinion of mine and yours as there is no built in meaning and sense into anything.

We stick to opinions we feel fancy until we don't and repeat until we die.

Any thread on dolphins teeming with the usual tripe about their intelligence, playfulness, peacefulness, and near parity (if not outright superiority) with humanity is not complete without mentioning their tendency to commit infanticide and kill other marine mammals for fun:



I'm confused, you use the term tripe, as to say it's misleading about their intellect or parity, and yet give two more examples on how similar they are to humans.

We, as humans, are peaceful, playful, intelligent, and vicious and sadistic murderers.

Because humans have never killed each other for dubious reasons, right?

I'm not sure how this information is relevant.

"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 -- while 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

Another science-fiction series about dolphins is David Brin's Uplift books. Humans use genetic engineering to "uplift" dolphins' and chimpanzees' intelligence. Then they all fly around in water-filled spaceships "manned" by dolphin crews. :D

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Dolphins are exactly why I feel SETI is such a misguided (in a sweet way) effort.

Here we are, searching for extraterrestrial intelligence while we can't even communicate with the other intelligent species on our own planet.

Glad to see we're making progress though!

Parrots call each other by names as well[1] and crows have been shown to speak in two different dialects depending if they are with a group or among individuals[2]. In the same link about crows, they have also been seen using tools in the wild and in experiments using "meta tools", something that only primates have been observed doing (using one tool to reach another tool that will be used for their end goal [generally food]).

It's quite amazing how much we take the animals around us for granted sometimes since all of this, like the dolphins is really new research that has only hit the tip of the iceberg.

The documentary about crows from PBS is quite insightful (full episode is at the link below if your region allows it). I was never much of a fan of crows and considered them kind of an annoyance. However, after watching it, I gained much more respect for their intelligence and complexity.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ed9A4HPdXgQ

[2] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/a-murder-of-crows/fu...

edit: the OP link actually mentions those particular crows and their tool usage in one of the slides.

Modern culture is filled with prejudices towards non-human forms of life. Not only are animals taken for granted and exploited for the well-being of the human species, which is wrongfully considered a "superior" life form, but life itself is taken for granted. Realizing just "now" that non-human life forms are more complex than we thought is simply because our ability to even be open minded about that possibility was completely suffocated by the hubris of humanity.

Not just modern culture, but really for the history of civilization. In fact, discoveries like these are starting to make us more empathetic, finally. During the 18th century, not only were all non-humans considered mindless automatons, many humans were too. The early descriptions of indigenous people by the European whites are pretty appalling.

It's ironic in its own way, given how many (not all, but many) of the indigineous groups treated animals and their ecosystems with more respect than they were given by other humans. In a lot of ways, it seems like we're having to relearn a lot of the values that cultures with longer histories have known for hundreds of years.

Let's be careful about "values from cultures with longer histories". They may have had good values but that did not prevent them from slaughtering each other all the same. Some american indians were known to be very violent yet very much in harmony with nature. So, what good does it do in the end?

> So, what good does it do in the end?

Adopt the good ideas of the past and avoid (and learn from) the mistakes of the past so we do not repeat them. One can respect the environment and animals without smashing heads. Pretty much every culture has had a violent past at some point, even cultures like the Romans and the Greeks were rather barbaric by modern standards (especially the Romans). Our descendants will probably think the same about us to a point as well in a couple hundred years.

You do not have to go back very far to find barbary even in our civilization (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert-Fran%C3%A7ois_Damiens) and this happened in the same century as the human rights philosophers. That was just a few generations ago.

Heh, that's funny, I was just watching a 3 part BBC Documentary on Versailles[1] (part 1 Louis XIV, part 2 Louis XV, part 3 Louis XVI). They talked quite a bit about Louis XV's attempted assassination and Damiens. From what was said, most other countries were appalled at the execution style.

I'd still say The Terror and Great Terror during the French Revolution were far more barbaric while masquerading in the name of enlightenment though. Even someone like Robespierre, who initially despised the death penalty and was seen as a champion of free thinking ended up being tyrant responsible for the deaths of thousands and restricted basic human freedoms like the press and speech.

[1] http://docuwiki.net/index.php?title=Versailles_(BBC)

> I'd still say The Terror and Great Terror during the French Revolution were far more barbaric while masquerading in the name of enlightenment though

Totally agree with you, and I certainly despise the national celebration of that hideous genocide (and there is no other word for it) called "the revolution" although I am French myself.

By the way, Robespierre was not the only one responsible (Marat, St-Just and others come to mind), and even Danton who was considered as a more moderate representative certainly did not do anything to stop the ongoing massacers and also used the "comite de salut public" to arrest and guillotine political opponents as well.

Yet, you still find streets, avenues, boulevards, schools wearing the name of such butchers all over France.

Yep, all very true and totally agree. Never just one individual responsible, I just dropped the name of the biggest one for the sake of briefness. I think it was Danton that said something like, "My only regret is to go before that rat Robespierre" when he was giving his last words after being arrested for realizing how screwed up the revolution had become with his and other's control of The Committee of Public Safety.

Also pains me to see (at least at the time, not sure if it's true anymore [perhaps you can elaborate on the public view of Marat now for me] ) that Jean-Paul Marat was made out to be a martyr on his death instead of despised for his role in fueling the flames. I'm not French (some day I will visit when I can), but I do have a large interest in French History (and European History in general) as well as revolutions and how people act during them. Revolutions kind of serve as a reminder of how little human nature changes during a time period that is meant to change humanity for the better. It unfortunately seems to repeat itself with nearly every revolution since, which is ashame.

> Jean-Paul Marat was made out to be a martyr on his death instead of despised for his role in fueling the flames.

Very true. He was well known to be claiming "100 000 tetes doivent tomber" (100 000 heads must fall) in order to get rid of the so-called "internal enemies". Interestingly, while he had a "martyr" image, so did Charlotte Corday (who killed him) at least in the eye of numerous writers post-Revolution.

If you are really into the story of the french revolution, I would really, absolutely recommend you watch the movie "La Revolution Francaise" made in 1989, in two parts of 3 hours each. It's very faithful to the spirit of the time, the actors are all excellent and you can really see how everything spins out of control progressively. Brilliant movie, sadly only distributed in France as far as I know. Contact me (check my profile) if you are interested.

I'd love to see it actually. Tried to contact you via your website form, but it wasn't working. I'll just send a tweet instead.

There should be my email somewhere in the profile, no? (check again, just added in profile)

I'd say the Russians pulled the same trick a century later. There were other butchers much more recently, but communism is the most recent example of butchery masquerading as enlightenment.

Indeed. I'd say a mixture of people having more time to study such things as well as people getting over the idea that we have nothing to learn from animals. I study animal intelligence as sort of a hobby in my free time and have focused on birds lately since they seem to get less recognition for intelligence than mammals or other animals that dominate television shows. Everyone knows parrots can mimic, but little mainstream news goes beyond that. Corvids (jays[1], crows[2], starlings, etc) can actually mimic in a similar manner. Birds in general are quite misrepresented and phrases like "eat like a bird" or "bird brained" are quite incorrect.

We all come from the same basic building blocks through evolution, so it would be quite weird to say that we don't share traits with our fellow animals.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T6pUxthClw

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgTCoTD3BWI

A Murder Of Crows was done in concert w/ CBC, though they may have done their own post-production work (I've only watched the PBS version). Canadians should probably look to the CBC[1] to watch it. There's also an interesting blurb from the director here[2].

[1]: http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/natureofthings/2009/murderof...

[2]: http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/natureofthings/2009/murderof...

Wow, that second link was a really good article. Thanks for sharing. I didn't realize crows were that camera shy or observant that people were watching them back.

Makes sense though they they would be paranoid when someone or some thing is paying them too much attention as 99% of the time it means something bad will come next.

Once I cornered a rabbit in my ally. The usual way out was blocked, and the rabbit was frantically searching the far wall for another escape while I watched. After a bit I was momentarily distracted, and the rabbit choose that moment to dash past me.

Apparently the rabbit knew my attention had turned. As would a crow. They don't need our special mental abilities -- language and lambdas -- to model the mental states of those around them.

(In other words, even the rabbits could tell last Saturday's party sucked as soon as they entered the room. Which is why none of them stayed.:)

I guess what just surprised me was crows would be that alert when they really have the advantage on us when it comes to escaping and being aware from having the high ground and ability to fly (well unless a person is hunting them, which is unlikely in a city). That combined with their communication with each other of potential threats.

I grew up on a farm around lots of wild animals and you're correct about rabbits though from my times of trying to catch them or saving baby bunnies from the cats. They're very observant, but I always figured they had much more reason to be from being alone and also limited to the ground without the ability to climb trees.

I've seen some birds that have little awareness (mourning doves and some sparrows). Sometimes they don't even realize you're almost on top of them until you're right next to them and then they freak out and fly away.

Same way cats can detect whether you focus your attention at them or not.

Eyes are very popular organ and seeing eyes and recognizing what they are looking at is very useful skill. I think animals get this skill as soon as they have enough physical computing power to achieve this task.

Around here there is a saying that crows can count to 2. So as the story goes: If you are going to hunt crows from a shed you should walk 4 men into the shed and then 3 should leave. Then the crow will count one, two, many men went in and many men went out and will consider the shed empty. I don't know if it is real but I have heard it from farmers/ around where I grew up.

Then again: Crows aren't too intelligent, the ladder trap seems to be effective around the world - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZLYiOn83Po

I wouldn't call some crows falling for a trap a clear indication of not being intelligent as there are probably many that also avoid it. Even humans fall for obvious traps again and again that many of us also avoid (phishing, Nigerian scams, pyramid schemes, link jacking, etc).

Not trying to be a defender of animal intelligence, just playing devil advocate for the sake of good, intelligent conversation :)

> Not trying to be a defender of animal intelligence, just playing devil advocate for the sake of good, intelligent conversation :)

And I really enjoyed it. : )

  Greasemonkey Gerbil
  Looking at the mouse trap.
  Looking at the spring, thinking 'bout the bait.
  Understands everything.
  But not the link.

We communicate with dolphins, gorillas, elephants, etc. all the time.

SETI is looking for technological species.

SETI is about finding alien signals, not necessarily understanding them. However, it's likely that any extraterrestrial intelligence capable of sending out signals powerful enough to reach us, will have an understanding of science and mathematics, which is more than we have in common with dolphins.

That sounds very intriguing. However, it's likely that any extraterrestrial intelligence capable of maintaining life on it's home planet, will have an understanding of their fellow life forms, which is more than we have.

What makes you say that? It doesn't take too much knowledge to maintain a biosphere, otherwise it would have collapsed long before humans arrived on Earth. It seems more to do with how cautious you want to be, how far a race is willing to push the environment in return for faster progress.

I also suspect that any extraterrestrial intelligence capable of making a signal detectable by our equipment would have given up its biological roots a long time ago, as life as we know it is badly adapted for space travel.

> It doesn't take too much knowledge to maintain a biosphere, otherwise it would have collapsed long before humans arrived on Earth.

Well. It did. Multiple times.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_event

It's just that things tend do kick back in if you give them few millions of years.

> However, it's likely that any extraterrestrial intelligence capable of maintaining life on it's home planet, will have an understanding of their fellow life forms, which is more than we have.

That's quite the assumption. Right now, our sample size of one shows the opposite.

There's no reason we can't pursue multiple lines of research in parallel. It's probably more efficient too.

SETI is not misguided. We've known for a long time that Earth was hospitable to intelligent life (us). That there are other species with similar levels of intelligent just makes Earth more awesome.

But it would be a complete mindfuck if we found other intelligent life in space, where before there were mainly only stars, rocks, and interesting formations of liquid and gas somewhere in between. It would change everything.

The thing about SETI is that it is not really a search for intelligent life, it's a search for "intelligent life that broadcasts radio waves of a frequency and power that we can detect in a pattern and on a timescale similar enough to our own communications that we can recognize it".

Fermi's paradox basically boils down to: if intelligent life is at all common, it should be everywhere we look, and yet we don't see any. The traditional position is that therefore if we don't see intelligent life, it must be because it's too rare, or communication across interstellar distances is impossible. But the other possible answer is that intelligent life is everywhere, and we just don't understand or even recognize it as such.

The fact that we've been living with dolphins for millions of years and actively studying them for decades and have only just worked out a pretty basic fact -- they have names for each other -- despite the fact that they share most of their genes with us and live under the same environmental conditions exactly, suggests that we are probably really really bad at recognizing intelligent life that isn't exactly like our own.

It is also possible that we haven't found intelligent life yet because we define both intelligence and life in very specific ways that we as humans can relate to. For example, there can be an intelligent microorganism species out there where each individual microorganism leads a life as complex as a human. They may have invented all sorts of things in the micro scale, but chances are we might never find them simply because we are not looking for intelligent life in such a micro context.

I think SETI will be much more fruitful once we master neutrinos for communication.

Radio waves are probably in the same bucket of technologies as smoke signals for civilizations few hundreds years more advanced than us.

I'd say having a meaningful conversation with a dolphin would be a much bigger mindfuck.

For all we know we could be discussing how the transition to Kantian philosophy played out slightly different for them in a few years.

Dr. Irene Pepperberg has had meaningful conversations with an African Grey parrot.

It was pretty cool. It gives me hope for a future of being part of a society with other sapient species in it.

But it wouldn't be quite the "whoa, on large enough scales the universe _really is_ the same, everywhere" type feeling that humans having meaningful conversations with, say, Fookin' Prawns would.

"it would be a complete mindfuck if we found other intelligent life in space, where before there were mainly only stars, rocks, and interesting formations of liquid and gas somewhere in between. It would change everything."

Given that the Milky Way alone has at least 100 billion planets (17 billion which are Earthlike)[1], it would actually be a far greater shock for there not to be intelligent life in space.

[1] http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-01/billions-and-b...

SETI isn't about communication though, at least not the conversational type; the speed of light is a cruel mistress.

This is a healthy sentiment that shows respect for the otherness of the other. I do think SETI is still necessary only because the empirical platform that all life shares is universal -- the radio spectrum, physics -- it's the same for all species. But this thread still clearly deserves some quotes from Stanislaw Lem:

"We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos."

"We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds."

An intelligent species is different from a technological one, by a huge magnitude. That's not to say that dolphins aren't worthwhile to communicate with but there will never be a dolphin shakespeare, or pythagoras, or einstein, or da vinci. The options for being able to communicate with a technological species are astronomically greater than with a non-technological intelligent species.

SETI are one of the biggest supporters of research into dolphin vocalisations. Laurance Doyle, who is at SETI, is one of the pioneers of the field.


I feel the same way about projects looking into habitation of foreign planets. The science and the engineering behind the endeavor is interesting, but why seriously not start thinking about and practicing sustainability in places like Antarctica?

Colonizing another planet is a hedge against a destructive event (asteroid, bomb, etc) completely extinguishing the human species.

Colonizing another planet would be a speciating event. Alpha Centurians would become a different species anyway, just like a population of birds that gets stranded on a remote island becomes a different species.

SETI isn't about communicating with alien lifeforms, it's about detecting signs of other intelligences than ourselves. Studying these aspects of dolphins is actually the same endeavour, just looking in different places.

I think what really excites most people about SETI is not just the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but extraterrestrial life that's more advanced than we are.

Not sure what 'advanced' means though :)

I went through a Cetacean and cephalopods obsession last year.

What really freaks me out is what Dolphins looked like when they were still land animals:


Also the perceptual systems of octopus and squid are amazing. Cuttlefish can perceive the polarization of light. This helps for contrast and edge detection. Many Cephalopods (octopuses, squid, cuttlefish) can see with their arms and then replay the image on the other side like a video screen.

Dolphins can tell the difference between a quarter and a dime from 100m away using sonar. The click generating system emanates from the top of their head, in the area of the third chakra.

We have a very limited sense of space and an all too focused sense of self. But we have a lot of oil and we can dig shit up and drive around real fast and think we are really important.

> We have a very limited sense of space and an all too focused sense of self. But we have a lot of oil and we can dig shit up and drive around real fast and think we are really important.

We can also appreciate these things as no other species on Earth can, to the best of our knowledge.

> What really freaks me out is what Dolphins looked like when they were still land animals

I took a look at that picture, then imagined the creature sniggering like Mutley from those old Hanna Barbera cartoons.

Go hang around sea lions next time. Their social structure is a lot of fun to watch and they really look like water-oriented dogs.

I referred to this NGM article in another sub-parent comment here, but I think it contains very relevant on-topic animal intelligence language-related insights, so posting a link and a couple of short excerpts from it here:

  Under Pepperberg’s patient tutelage, Alex [a parrot] learned how to use his vocal tract to imitate almost one hundred English words, including the sounds for all of these foods, although he calls an apple a “banerry.”

  “Apples taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up that word for them,” Pepperberg said.


  [...] because Alex was able to produce a close approximation of the sounds of some English words, Pepperberg could ask him questions about a bird’s basic understanding of the world. She couldn’t ask him what he was thinking about, but she could ask him about his knowledge of numbers, shapes, and colors. To demonstrate, Pepperberg carried Alex on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room. She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex’s eye.

  “What’s same?” she asked.

  Without hesitation, Alex’s beak opened: “Co-lor.”

  “What’s different?” Pepperberg asked.

  “Shape,” Alex said.
Article: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2008/03/animal-minds...

From that excerpt, all the parrot can tell is if two objects are the same color or not.

Not really: the parrot must have an internal representation of 'color' as something (a concept / quality) that can be had and shared between things. It (hm, s/he) must therefore understand that it is (it must represent it as) an abstract quality in the sense that it can be had by different things (likewise with 'shape').

Well so what? This entails (I would argue) that it has the capacity to store and operate on abstract things (more or less the definition of 'symbol') - and in this very sense, the parrot has the faculty for symbolic processing/operations. Not only does it extract properties from sensory data and generalize them into concepts (things can be wibbly-wobbly-in-way-A, or wibbly-wobbly-in-way-B (first order of abstraction (well, n+1 really)) => things have wibbliness, and some things have the same kind of wibbliness (second order (or n+2))), but also, it may operate on these concepts and use them in assertion/negation propositions: some objects have the same color but not the same shape. (I use the term proposition in the more general logical sense, not necessarily as in 'a linguistic assertion'; but when asked, the parrot provides an answer that can be put in a truth-table so to speak.)

Interestingly, that's one of the ways to actually define 'semantic content': something which provides truth-conditions (e.g. some language-formalizing systems would say that the proposition "The present King of France is bald" has no semantic content / has no meaning because it is neither true nor false (presently there is no King in France, and the reference fails) (though Russell would disagree ('how can it be neither true nor false?') (if interested: "On Denoting", 1905.))

So what #2? Well, one could argue that symbolic apparatus + semantics (a set of truth-functions / grounds for constructing them) => 'language', so it's kind of a big thing, I'd say. (At the very least, evidence towards abstract thought in animals is always somehow very interesting for me.) Again: symbols (abstracting from properties => projecting these abstracts back onto sensory data) + symbolic processing (basically, ability to ascribe truth/falsity to/via them) => darn interesting. There's a whole hot debate how/whether this can be achieved 'bottom-up' from neural networks (Connectionism) (is 'symbolic processing' the proper way of reduction? Even if cognition is 'symbolic' in the end, perhaps it is best to model this starting bottom-up and arriving at 'symb.processing' as an emergent/epiphenomenal capacity?) - or, whether you need 'innate capacity' for symbolic processing / language ('language genes') - top-bottom language faculties (that all add up to those same neural networks, but simply, you won't get much by starting bottom-up) (Classicism / Nativism (not really interchangeable, using loosely / generalizing, etc.))

(http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/language-thought/#ConDeb , http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/connectionism/#ShaConBetCo... , etc.)

</convoluted comment>

edit fixed and added even more confusing stuff.

Let's go back to the scenario:

> The parrot sees a green key, and a green cup, and answers "color" to "what's same?" and "shape" to "what's different".

For all I know, the parrot recognizes both objects having the same color, and I assume that "shape" means nothing more than "equality" and does not imply attribution of concept or quality, until the parrot can also tell the difference between for example something wet and something dry. In my skepticism, the only meaningful ability of the parrot is to say out loud if the color matches.

Which, IMHO, does not imply as much as you say. There must definitely be some internal model of the world for this to happen. You might be right when you say that there is attribution of quality, concepts, objects, and they share qualities - but I remain skeptic. For instance, an ant will recognize a sugar and react to it, and react differently to for ex. something noxious, but we know that ants are not capable of any complex internal models.

All in all, TY for the reply!

Someone should define a canonical way to transform dolphins' whistles into syllables. Then we could at least sort of refer to them by their names.

Apparently, dolphin trainers have the ability to whistle their names:

"Her name was really Cathy. Well, not really. Her real name was [whistles]."[1]

[1] http://www.democracynow.org/2010/8/16/filmmakers_activists_t...


Thank you.

Maybe it wasn't entirely obvious, but there is a transcript at the bottom.

Then we could build it into Unicode!

I'm also sure we could make a sort of pin-yin conversion system for said syllables to make a pseudo-pronunciation.

then we could take the next step(s) and build a translator!

John Lilly, who spent years working with dolphins, believed that they were smart enough to be cute and friendly to humans because they understood how dangerous we were.

Thanks for mentioning Lilly. His book on his studies of dolphins* was a good read when I picked it up a decade or so ago. The comparison of brain- to body-mass across humans, elephants, and dolphins was compelling, alone.

* http://www.amazon.com/Communication-Between-Dolphin-John-Lil...

Not necessarily.

Most of the time the people think about how cute is a dolphin is misunderstanding the animal. If a Lion shows you the teeth, you don't think is a cute kitty, is angry!, but, hey, this dolphin that show us the teeth "is smiling"!. This "smile" is in fact an agressive display in the wild.

Being faster, well armed, and better fitted for water, a dolphin can avoid dangerous humans in the water any time he wants. In fact a lot of alone exemplars search for company, actively, even if is from humans, and are curious. Some dolphins simply like the human company, or the benefits derived of this, other not... at all.

On the other hand, animals that are domesticated become "cuter." Look at the Russian fox domestication program (and the mirror aggressiveness program). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domesticated_silver_fox

These foxes actually share a good number of features with dogs and humans: it may be that, because dolphins are such social creatures, we perceive them as cute because they are more or less domesticated.

A suspected reason why domesticated animals cuter is the ideal that traits that are typically selected are traits found in youth. The general term for this is neoteny [1], which is where youthful traits are held on to into adult life.

Typical traits selected for are reduced aggression and increased docility. The hypothesis is that the animals that displayed these traits likely also had a variety of other relatively child-like traits, such as larger heads, larger foreheads (I guess this might be why dolphins look so darn cute), larger eyes, floppy ears, and etc - on the basis that the set of genes that control the development of adult traits are typically linked together.

The result being that as we selected for the tamest animals, we also selected those that were cuter. It's kind of circular in that traits that make things cute are typically those that are found as young - the young form of most animals sharing the same general 'cute' features.

One thing of note is that the concept of neoteny is often invoked to explain how humans diverged so rapidly from the other primates. If you accept that explanation, and take the idea a bit further, then you end up with a somewhat bizarre and perhaps disturbing idea that humans are actually the result of self-domesticating primates (obviously a gross over simplification... but kind of a fun thought to play around with).

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoteny

Yes but dolphins are not selectively breeded for domestication. At all. They are anti-domesticated in fact.

If a killer whale attacks or kills a people in a zoo, (and this accidents happen) this whale is not killed and is maintained in breeding programs, as its sons. Too much expensive animal to lose its genes.

What's amazing about the silver fox domestication experiment was that it used ONE selection criteria - flight distance (the distance a human can approach an animal before it runs away) to do selective breeding. After tens of generations, the foxes were domesticated and most of the traits of a domesticated animals such as cuteness came along as side effects.

It was a great experiment showing a simple selection rule can generate complex evolution result.

“Hey everybody! I’m an adult healthy male named George, and I mean you no harm!”

That would be more like "Hey everyone, I'm George". Humans also 'encode' information in that sense - from that introduction you could probably tell age, general health and friendliness.

The day we can talk to any stranger dolphin and have a real conversation will be alike to contacting alien life.

>The day we can talk to any stranger dolphin and have a real conversation will be alike to contacting alien life.

Actually, I don't think it will be all that alien. The conversation will probably be quite understandable. You will get conversations about fishing, who's pregnant, who you want to make pregnant, how your kids are doing, the temperature of the water, where the predators are. They probably tell stories, but they will be quite understandable to us. Fundamentally it's because the basic constraints of their lives are just like ours: get raised by mom, have friends, learn to hunt, mate, avoid predators and have fun while you can!

Very true. On that topic, "...these communications consist of whistles, not words." Not to suggest that they're actually speaking a language, but a language consisting of whistles could still easily contain words. It would just have a different set of sounds.

It's not like it would be a new concept to humankind:


After some rabbit hole googling related to my 'Seaquarium' digression below, I encountered this 2010 transcript[1] of an ex-Flipper trainer:

"Flipper was a wild animal that lived in Biscayne Bay before we captured her and dragged her, kicking and screaming, to the Miami Seaquarium and put her in a tank and gave her a stage name, Flipper. Her name was really Cathy. Well, not really. Her real name was [whistles]. Dolphins have a signature whistle that their mother gives them." - Ric O'Barry

So it seems like this research proves what dolphin trainers have known, ostensibly, for many years?

[1] http://www.democracynow.org/2010/8/16/filmmakers_activists_t...

====== OT:

> The researchers also intensely studied four captive adult male dolphins housed at The Seas Aquarium, also in Florida.

Made me giggle. Don't they mean, the [Miami] Seaquarium? If so, Flipper[1][2] is part of the study!

[1] http://miamiseaquarium.com/Shows/Flipper-Dolphin

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flipper_(1964_TV_series)#Filmin...

> Bottlenose dolphins call out the specific names of loved ones when they become separated, a study finds.

...Holy, f^~kin crap! We've been in the presence of other sentients this whole time. Enslaved them. Killed them while gathering food. Holy, f^~kin crap!

Its an uneasy thought to have that sentience might not be a binary function that humans have and other species lack. It might be a continuum. Some animals are far more sentient than others. Its followed closely by the even more uncomfortable thought that this might vary greatly inside the species. Finally this eerie train of thought pulls into the last station and you think that if the above is true than its almost certain that some humans are less sentient than others. There be dragons.

Well, you could take that as "less sentient humans should be treated like animals and abused/treated like property/eaten." On the other hand, you could take it as:

- Maybe I shouldn't eat all / some animals.

- Maybe some / all animals should have more rights and not be treated as objects, but living beings.

[Not to mention the Christian fundamentalists that will refer to the Bible stating that God gave man domain over animals, so things like lighting cats on fire for fun are ok.]

I totally agree on non-binary sentience. I think level of sentience correlates with capacity to experience dreams. I think cats and dogs and even smaller animals are somewhat sentient because they dream.

What's more interesting, what level of sentience could be achieved with brain that has lot more power than human brain?

We've been constantly killing and enslaving sentients while gathering food and resources ever since humans became sentient themselves. Still do.

On the other hand, one could say that a species killing and exploiting their own is internal problem of that species, while doing that to another intelligent species is morally worse on some level.

> We've been constantly killing and enslaving sentients while gathering food and resources ever since humans became sentient themselves. Still do.

Yes, but the bastards that are doing that know they are doing that.

> On the other hand, one could say that a species killing and exploiting their own is internal problem of that species, while doing that to another intelligent species is morally worse on some level.

And realizing that it's been happening unknowingly is another kind of mindf^~k as well!

The full paper is available for free from the Royal Society B:

Vocal copying of individually distinctive signature whistles in bottlenose dolphins


The orginal press release is here: http://www.smru.st-and.ac.uk/newsItem.aspx?ni=1611


I will wager money that their names translate to things like:

   Big nose
   Funny tail
   Horny boy
   Big mamma
   Deep swimmer
Not just amusing, but also useful. By correlating individual behaviors and physical features with names, we might be able to unlock dolphin language! Which would be incredible!

Great idea. We humans were named after many characteristics. Jobs, what we see when the child is born, what kinds of personality we want our children to have, etc.

Last year around this time, I had the opportunity to interact with two dolphins in captivity. Being with them, they felt so present and warm, like being around a perceptive old friend. I had never had that experience with an animal before, except fellow humans. It's something I will never forget.

I take it that you are not a dog person?

Recently my family got a dog. Love him. But his presence and awareness is very different.

Growing up, I was lucky enough to occasionally join a group of scientists aboard a research vessel off the northern tip of the Bahamas. We would spend hours a day and up to two weeks at a time on the open ocean swimming with them and making visual and audio recordings of their behavior. The species they study are Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (Stenella frontalis). One of the things that has always struck me about them is how social they are – they have social circles and "cliques", similar to humans. We would observe these social networks and monitor how they change over the years. This research project is unique because they've been following this same group of just a few hundred dolphins in the wild for over 25 years. Having watched video and high frequency audio recordings of them interacting with one another in the wild, it comes as no surprise that they have "names" for one another.

Relatedly, Denise Herzing, the founder of that organization (the Wild Dolphin Project) will be speaking at TED this year (see Session 8, "Coded Meaning"): http://conferences.ted.com/TED2013/program/guide.php

Here's their site: http://www.wilddolphinproject.org/about-us/mission-vision/

That is an interesting result. Some birds mimic other bird's songs but I don't know of an example in the bird family where an individual had a unique song.

How about Emperor Penguins? When one of a pair returns from feeding, it finds the other by recognizing its unique calls.

I think the finding here is not that dolphin A has a unique call, but that dolphin B calls out to A using A's unique call in order to find A. This is as opposed to B simply listening for A's call.

Unbelievable that humans still kill these amazing animals


Well, people kill people, too. But I agree with the underlying sentiment that we should be taking their place in the world much more seriously than we do most other animals.

Well we kill each other more, but dolphins are much more cute.

Because I ended up doing a bit of reading about dolphins earlier this week, I thought I'd share a bit of trivia in this thread: dolphins also have prehensile penises. (Like an elephant's nose) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=1...

And they're also not-very-nice (Tongue firmly in cheek here. Of course animals do not possess human qualities like "nice" or "asinine") http://deepseanews.com/2013/02/10-reasons-why-dolphins-are-a...

Now that we know they have names and are able to make tools, this has to make them one of the most unique species on the planet aside from man. Wonder what would have happened had they just invented some form of writing?

I think we eat them not the other way around only because underwater is a crappy place to develop multi-generational culture. You need surfaces you can draw your symbols on and appendages that can manipulate things while looking at them.

I don't feel that I'm member of the best species on earth. Just the one that is ahead in the race but only by a very thin margin. Fortunately we reached "writing" and "science" checkpoints first which means that we effectively won.

As far as I know Royal Penguins also can call each other by name. And can distinguish a call from afar in the noise of hundreds of other penguins calling each other. There must be a lot of redundancy in the call, I guess.

Also penguins sound totally like one of these old 14400 baud modems ;)

Dolphin language is similar to human language.


I think it's a mistake to say that they call each other by "name," because that implies the ability to form concepts/speak a language, and there is absolutely zero evidence for that. Even the article is careful to point that out:

While researchers often hesitate to apply the “l word” -- language -- to non-human communications, bottlenose dolphins and possibly other dolphin species clearly have a very complex and sophisticated communication system.

Depends on your definition of 'name' and your system/formalization of the act of reference and/or semantics.

In this case, 'name' seems to mean 'proper name', and there are systems explaining proper names as symbols used to refer, but not to carry semantic charge (whatever that would entail). For example in my native tongue many town names are named after rivers large and small that do - or - only used to flow next to / past those towns. Yet we don't suddenly change the proper name: the reference still works, but we do not need to cognize the semantic contents (originally associated with the name, if that was the case anyway; if you know where Baroomghtown is, I can use the term to refer to it and my reference will succeed as it were).

That was a mouthful. My (insignificant) point: perhaps they would only need cognitive machinery for referring to (in some simple(?) sense) / distinguishing between themselves. That is: (1) usage of proper names does not (necessarily) imply ability to speak a language (perhaps that's all I meant; talk about nitpicking..); (2) there's quite a lot of research showing that animals form concepts left and right (could dig something up, but googling under those keywords would yield enough). Consider this interesting report:

  Under Pepperberg’s patient tutelage, Alex [a parrot] learned how to use his vocal tract to imitate almost one hundred English words, including the sounds for all of these foods, although he calls an apple a “banerry.”

  “Apples taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up that word for them,” Pepperberg said.
(NGM, 2008: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2008/03/animal-minds... (a curious article))

So it might be possible to conceive of a schema such that [arbitrary symbols (sequences of syllables, etc.)] + [concepts] => proper names; and those would indeed be what we are used to calling 'proper names', a subset of the category denoted by 'names', not something else.

However, I agree completely with the sentiments re: fears of (over-)anthropomorphizing and projecting our own 'theories of mind' onto other life.

Very true. Its an anthropomorphism. Its much more interesting to learn what cultural and communication structures they do use. Not to try to turn them into cartoons or easily human-digestible concepts.

I bet there would be economic opportunity in developing commercial dolphin-human communication software and interfaces. Imagine how much benefit to deep sea construction and exploration there would be if training and employing dolphins using natural language was possible. Or to shipping, fishing etc.

Dolphin-based sitcoms where the dolphin says "it's a living" and shrugs his dolphin shoulders.

When we uplift them, we'll have to remember to give them shoulders. And eyebrows. Good comedy depends on eyebrows.

Did you know that dolphins love to rape each other and some have tried to rape a human?!

Check out this list of interesting facts...


It's amazing how similar they are to humans in many respects.

It is. Highly intelligent, playful, social, strategic, sexual, and with bursts of aggression.

I wonder, if there is any public repository of dolphin audio recordings.

Have they tried testing this on dogs, too? I assume they don't do that, but it would be interesting if they did the test on dogs, too.

And ferrets.

Like in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams :) Dolphins will govern...

Did anyone else's pulse race when they saw the phrase "encodes other information"?

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