Dolphins our twins? – IDP in TO VIMA

Today, 12th of August, an article entitled Το δίδυμό μας στο νερό! (Our twin in the water) came out on Sunday’s special supplement on Science of “TO BHMA” (In English; “The Tribune”). The article does a very good review of the cognitive capabilities and contrasted intelligence of cetaceans and counts with the invaluable collaboration of Lori Marino, neuroscientist and a world leading expert on animal behaviour and intelligence and also the founder and Executive Director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, Inc. In addition, the paper also talks about the Ionian Dolphin Project and about our “Be Dolphin Smart” initiative to encourage boaters to behave responsibly when coming across whales or dolphins with the aim of minimizing any potential adverse effect that their boats might cause them.  The article features also our Cetacean Species Identification Guide produced to help sailors report their sightings to us.

You can download the original .pdf version HERE. Those not fluent in Greek, should not miss the English version below for detail.

I wold like to thank Lalina Fafouti (the journalist) for her collaboration and for facilitating the English version of the article.



Our twin in the water! 

By Lalina Fafouti


Dolphins’ intelligence is incredible: they understand the concept of zero, they recognize themselves in the mirror and create cultures while they never leave a member of their team without help. That’s why a movement was born which asks for them to be declared “non human persons”.

The word “cetus” in greek is usually associated with something bulky, ugly, awkward, and coarse. However the cetus we see most often in our seas – the dolphin –belies this too easy association. A dolphin is cute, is the first, spontaneous thought that comes to mind, it looks beautiful and playful in the water.  It is though also extremely intelligent, in a very sophisticated way, and this is something we tend to forget. The mammal with the second largest brain compared to body ratio after humans is demonstrating a sensitivity and intelligence that experts do not encounter in other animals. In such an extent that many of them believe that it is our equal.

Some months ago a group of scientists led by the philosopher Thomas White presented a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the most important scientific event in the world. Their main claim, based on the growing body of scientific evidence that come to light, is the recognition of dolphins and whales as “nonhuman persons” who require our respect. Their main objective is the prohibition of captivity for marine mammals (which inflicts intense stress on them and shortens their life), as well as their protection through the establishment of special “rules of conduct” when we meet them at sea.


A brain that makes a difference

What is it that makes scientists see the dolphins in a “different” eye? “I think it is the fact they are so different. In some ways they’re the same than us and other mammals, but in other ways they are completely different ” tells “To Vima” Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and behavioural biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, United States, known for her studies on cetaceans and one of the scientists who signed the declaration of their rights. When you look at their brain it is very different from our brain or the brain of other mammals. They do represent a very high level of intelligence but in some ways it is a different type of intelligence from what we know“.

Dolphins are mammals who “passed” from the land in the water and therefore they were brought to a completely different natural and social environment. For this reason their brains evolved differently and also their sensory systems. Dolphins probably do not have a sense of smell like land mammals but they have an excellent hearing and they can also sense via ultrasound with their sophisticated echolocation system. “This is not just a perceptional system, which they use to find their food,” says Ms. Marino. “We believe that it is actually a communication method. We don’t really fully understand it yet, but we think that there is a lot going on there that is still to be discovered”.


“Live” pregnancy test

Their sonar allows dolphins to scan any body in the water and “see” through it. Some researchers maintain that it also allows them to “read” the feelings of other dolphins, since they can sense various internal processes of their system. One thing is however certain: it transforms them to a “live” and infallible “pregnancy test” since, in essence, their echolocation system is like doing an ultrasound. “This mythology about pregnant women and dolphins in the water is really not a myth” explains the researcher. “If a woman is pregnant and gets in the water with a dolphin, even if she doesn’t know she is, dolphins will often take that up and start buzzing around the belly and focus on that. There are women who have been informed that they were pregnant by dolphins”.

Not only the females, who maybe can make a parallelism with a possible situation of their own, but also male dolphins are attentive to women expecting a child and the fetus that they carry. In a very “human” way, their sensitivity is not limited only to pregnancy but seems to extend toward every weakness. “Generally dolphins do treat people differently depending on their abilities in the water says Ms. Marino. They are definitely more gentle with children for instance, and they do seem to understand how well someone can swim and how well someone can handle themselves in the water”.


Do not disturb them!

This insight, however, as she promptly adds, can be two-sided. Usually these marine mammals behave with care to those who are not keen swimmers. But exactly because they can “weigh” the skills of the person they have in front of them, if this person threatens or annoys them they can exploit any weakness of theirs to the fullest and try to bring them down to the bottom, preventing them from coming to the surface to breathe. When can such a thing happen? Most of the time in the wild dolphins don’t bother people and if they’re curious they may stay with them for a while and then move on says the expert.

There are two circumstances in which the otherwise friendly marine mammals can get rough – and they do get rough: “One is if you are chasing them or interrupting them or sort of getting in the way of something she says. “If you see a mother and child and you try to harass them or touch them if they don’t want to be touched, they will get upset“. Incidents of people injured by dolphins in the sea are not frequent, but they have happened and in all of them, the scientist points out, people did not show the appropriate respect. You really have to have a respect for them and let them tell you whether they want to be with you or not she says.

The second case where dolphins become really irritable is when people are depriving them of their freedom by enclosing them in aquariums. “The most injuries and deaths that come from dolphins and whales have been from captive dolphins and whales because of stress” emphasizes Ms. Marino.


Complex emotions and team spirit

A dolphin’s brain may differ from our own, but its organization clearly shows a great emotional ability. “The limbic system, the system that is involved in processing emotions, is very well developed and the cortical areas around it are also highly developed” says Ms. Marino. “When you look at a dolphin or a whale brain, when you look at its structure, at the limbic system and the areas around it, you see that this is a brain that has evolved to process very complex emotions.”

Not only the structure of their brain but also their reactions show that dolphins have a highly developed sense of empathy – they have a sense of themselves and a sense of others and they are able to identify and empathise with them and express sympathy and compassion. Ms. Marino and her colleagues were the first to show in experiments that dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors, an ability that only a few other animals – humans, great apes or elephants – seem to have.

“But we also see much evidence for empathy just from their behaviour in the wild” she adds. “We see cases of them coming to aid other dolphins when they’re in trouble, when hunt or hurt. And they have done the same for humans as well. They also have this very high connection to the other members of their group, when one of them is in trouble or stranded the others will strand with them or keep watch. They are very group oriented, very family oriented and they seem to be very very much part of the group”.


Excellent in syntax and incredible imitators

Besides that they can look at themselves in the mirror, dolphins can understand abstract concepts such as zero, they can understand syntax and, as experiments have shown, they can also learn a simple artificial language. “They can process information in a very quick and complex manner” says Ms. Marino. “I think that the thing that is most remarkable about them is how flexible they are. And how creative they are. You can ask a dolphin to do something they’ve never done before and they will do that. They understand the concept of novelty. And these are the kind of things that require a very high level of intelligence, a very complex level of intelligence”.

In short dolphins can do everything great apes – our closest and regarded as smartest relatives – do. In many of these things though their performance is much better. They appear to be much better “students” in syntax while, as the researcher points out, an area where they exhibit an exceptional talent is… mimetic. The feat is not small nor trivial since, apart from being cute, it betrays a very high level of intelligence. “Bottlenose dolphins are great imitators” declares Ms. Marino.

“Primates do imitate but it’s not as sophisticated as it is in bottlenose dolphins” she adds. The way the dolphins imitate, she explains, shows that these marine mammals have a sense of their own body and a sense of the body of their “model”, something very rare in the animal kingdom. “Dolphins can imitate humans in a way that shows that they have a sense of what is analogous: their arms are like my pectoral fin, their legs are like my flukes. They do it spontaneously and it is very sophisticated”.


A social life and their own language

Like apes, dolphins have a complex social life, and scientists believe this is directly related to the high intelligence of these two animal families. “To arrange all these very complex social relationships, remember things, keep tabs on things and follow all your relationships around, all that is very complex and requires high cognitive power” says Ms. Marino. “Only a few species seem to have that, lets’ say, chimpanzees and baboons, and many dolphins and whales, and of course humans”.

As part of their sociability dolphins communicate with whistling sounds. Recently, a group of researchers from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland led by Vincent Janik found that these whistles are essentially “signatures” – whole phrases with which they greet each other by stating their name and their intentions. Generally the “nonhuman persons” seem to exhibit a high verbal fluency: they can mimic the song of other animals, and many captive dolphins use specific sounds to refer to specific objects, as if they are using words.


Shared genes with humans

It is not surprising therefore that a recent comparison of the genome of the dolphin with the genome of other animals (including human’s, chimpanzee’s, and cow’s, its closest land relative) showed that the marine mammal shares many genes with us. At the same time though, as the researchers from the Wayne State University in Detroit note in their study published in the journal «Proceedings of the Royal Society B», 228 gene sequences in dolphins have undergone significant changes.

Many of these are associated with the nervous system and could be directly related to specific cognitive abilities of the dolphins. “Something really interesting in this study,” says Ms. Marino “is that it showed that the changes that took place in the human brain when it got larger are much the same changes that took place when the dolphin and whale brain got large. There is something shared there. Although we have been on different evolutionary tracks for so long still the same mechanism seems to be shaping how our brains got large”.


Dolphin culture

Recent studies, mainly by researchers from Dalhousie University in Canada led by Hal Whitehead, have also shown that dolphins (and whales) have a culture – or rather many separate cultures. “A group’s members have special ways of doing things, from tool use to dialects ot greeting each other, and these traditions are passed from one generation to the next” says the researcher. Cultural differences, as she explains, have nothing to do with the species. “A dolphin population may have a different culture from another, even if they belong to the same species,” she says. “And the point about that is that when you encounter dolphins in the wild you are not just encountering a bunch of animals in the wild, you are actually there amid a culture”.

All these observations make the question jump to mind: maybe the attitude we humans adopt towards other animals, believing that we are superior and more intelligent, is not really close to reality? “You know dolphins, when you work with them, they really do pose you this question” says the expert. “I think that they have an intelligence on a par with humans but there are some differences. And we just have to learn that there are a couple of different ways of intelligence on this planet. That it isn’t just the human way or the primate way, there is another way, the cetacean way”.

What is different in this way? “In many ways they process information much faster than we do and I think there is much about them that we could really learn from” states Ms Marino, adding: “One other thing that makes them very different from most primates is the way they are able to live into complex groups pretty peacefully. Not always, but they generally seem to have worked out a level of being social that’s beyond the primates. And I think that’s something we could learn from”.



Box 1

Smart Dolphins of the Ionian

If this summer you sail the Ionian Sea, especially between Lefkada, Echinades, Ithaca and Cephalonia, it is likely that you will encounter a dolphin culture, as bottlenose dolphins, the declared endangered species common dolphins, and a number of other cetaceans still swim in our seas – though unfortunately in more and more smaller populations. If such a thing happens, make sure to raise on their level and treat them equally “smartly”, avoiding to commit the common mistakes common people make.

What are these? “The most common mistake most people make is that they try to touch the dolphins, swim with them, feed them or interact with them in the wrong way” tells “To Vima” Joan Gonzalvo, a marine biologist and scientific director of the Ionian Dolphin Project, a project of Tethys Research Institute dedicated to the study and conservation of dolphins in the Ionian. “The problem is that dolphins cannot complain, they cannot show their frustration” he adds.

The fact that a dolphin seems always smiling and happy should not fool you. “They don’t have muscles in their face and therefore they have always the same expression,” says the biologist. “This means that you can not understand if they are annoyed, unless you are familiar with their behaviour”. For an expert like Mr. Gonzalvo, who spends long hours observing the dolphins, the signs of “irritation” are immediately visible. “They demonstrate some specific behaviours, they jump or slide out of the water” he says. “In many cases this means a change of mood as a result of a wrong move. Many people who are not familiar perceive this as a game, but it is the opposite. It shows that something has disturbed them”.

A few months ago the scientists of the Ionian Dolphin Project (which is sponsored by Earthwatch, Ocean Care and RAC / SPA, while collaborating with Thalassa project in environmental education) have launched a new initiative. Their aim is to raise public awareness and participation in the protection of dolphins in the area of the Ionian Sea. With the eloquent slogan «Be dolphin smart» they ask for your help. They are not asking much from you – just to show the proper respect to the dolphins that come in your way and inform them about these ‘contacts’.

So if, as they write at the project’s website, you have such a pleasant meeting, follow some simple rules. Put your engine at the “neutral” speed and keep a distance of 50 metres – you will equally enjoy the spectacle and maybe for a longer time. Do not feed the dolphins, do not try to touch them, do not dive in to swim with them. And do not forget, once you are online, inform them at where you can easily make your report by filling out the special form and upload videos and photos. However, if you see a dolphin trapped or injured, do not delay. Immediately notify the Greek Coast Guard, which in turn will inform the specialists of Tethys (or, in other areas, the relevant competent organizations) to come and save the situation.

If, on the other hand, you do not have the opportunity to see the marine mammals in the Ionian Sea, do not get frustrated: visit the website and learn everything you want to know about them and never thought to ask.



Box 2

“Dolphinese”, LSD and Philosophy

It may sound odd but some dolphins have suffered the most appalling behaviour in the name of science. In the 1950’s, trying to study their communication abilities, the controversial American doctor, neuroscientist and psychoanalyst John Lilly put dolphins in sensory deprivation tanks (which, we must admit, he had first tried himself), gave them LSD and other hallucinogens and made every effort to communicate with them. Lilly firmly believed that dolphins speak “dolphinese”, and as recent research suggests maybe he was not so wrong about this. To prove it he constructed in the Virgin Islands special facilities in the water where the marine mammals co-existed with humans in a “shared home”. However, they never exchanged a word.

By contrast Louis Herman, who has shown more concern for the welfare of the animals he studied, made dolphins “speak” an artificial language with simple syntax that he invented. His most innovative experiments were conducted in the 1970s and 1980s in Hawaii and showed that these marine mammals understand syntax and abstract concepts. One of his best “students” was Akekamai (Philosophy in a loose translation from Hawaiian), a female bottlenose dolphin that has demonstrated excellent perceptual abilities and high intelligence.


—- —- —- —-


– Captions:

Dolphins’ leaps out of the water do not always suggest a mood for playing: sometimes they are a sign of anxiety or annoyance

The cetaceans of the greek seas – All these cetacean species swim in greek waters. If you meet any one of them in the Ionian Sea take a photograph or video and upload it at informing the scientists about your sightings.

Common dolphins, a declared endangered species, are still visible in the Ionian Sea, though in smaller and smaller numbers.

Dolphins transmit their knowledge and habits from generation to generation building separate cultures

Surfing champions – dolphins like playing in the waters of the bow of ships because their movement is accelerated and they slide in the water with the same speed as the ship


– Numbers

150 common dolphins lived in Eastern Ionian in 1997

only 15 common dolphins were left in the same region in 2007


1500-1700 gr the absolute mass of a bottlenose dolphin’s brain

1300-1400 gr the absolute mass of a human’s brain

400 gr the absolute mass of a chimpanzee’s brain


About Joan Gonzalvo

Joan Gonzalvo is the project manager and scientific coordinator of the Ionian Dolphin Project. He is a Catalan biologist whose main research interest is the conservation of the marine environment and, more specifically, the study and conservation of cetaceans.

2 Responses to “Dolphins our twins? – IDP in TO VIMA”

  1. Ghaidaa Mohamad August 15, 2012 1:10 PM #

    Simply fascinating. A superb article.

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