The Amazing Dolphins
It has been known that Dolphins are intelligent creatures of the deep. But it was not until the
1961, when Dr. John C. Lilly published his book "Man and Dolphin," that anybody thought of these creatures as possibly being
as smart, if not smarter than humans.
Lilly looked upon the dolphin in the way we might think of a highly intelligent alien mind living
in a watery world very different from our own. He discovered ways of communicating with these amazing mammals.
Because of their ability to hear and make sounds that go beyond human awareness, the dolphins found
that to communicate with us, they had to keep their noises within the human pitch range. In effect, the dolphins were able
to work with Lilly to break communication barriers. Not only could they do this, but the dolphins were recorded by Lilly mimicking
On eulogizing Lilly following his death in 2001, James Nollman, chairman of the Interspecies Communication
Project, said Lilly's greatest contribution was to break contemporary myths about dolphins. "He made the human race take a
close look at another species as a potential equal," he said. "Not the same as us, but equal in consciousness, using it in
a very different way."
It was Lilly's work that alerted the U. S. Navy about the high intelligence of the dolphin. In the
1960s, the Navy started a secret dolphin research project that involved teaching various species of dolphins, whales and other
Cetaceans how to assist in underwater warfare.
The effect of military exploitation of these peaceful creatures has been a disaster. The animals
retrieved mines, placed explosives on the sides of enemy ships and accomplished various other jobs formerly reserved for Navy
frogmen. But they were recruited into service against their will, and treated much like any other animal pressed into military
service. Stories emerged about how dolphins were being mistreated. The older dolphins were simply "dumped" at sea without
During the height of the dolphin program it was said that about 20 percent of the Navy dolphins
escaped each year. Many of them fled with muzzles on their snouts or rostrums that mean certain death. The animals were turned
into Kamikaze torpedoes, or trained to attack enemy frogmen.
That was the inhumane part of the dolphin story. In other research fields, people like Lilly are
discovering the amazing intellect of the dolphin. There are many examples.
Workers at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi trained the dolphins to keep their
pool clean by picking up any litter they find. The dolphin is rewarded for every scrap of litter turned in with a fish. One
enterprising dolphin named Kelly began hiding pieces of paper under a rock at the bottom of the pool. Kelly was observed tearing
away pieces of the paper and turning them in for several fish, one-at-a-time.
Kelly once caught a gull that got too close to the pool and turned it into the trainers. As a reward
she was given several fish. After that, Kelly began using a piece of meal of fish to lure more gulls to the pool. The practice
caught on and other dolphins in the pool began baiting the gulls. Catching gulls has now become a game among the dolphins.
Kelly has demonstrated a sense of the future and she also delays gratification. She understands
that a large piece of paper brings the same reward as a small piece. Kelly has learned to manipulate her trainers.
In 1999, researchers placed mirrors on the walls of a pool containing two dolphins at the New York
Aquarium. The study was to determine how the dolphins would react to their own reflections. They were surprised when the animals
failed to react as they would when coming in contact with other dolphins. When the dolphins were later marked with a non-toxic
ink on different areas of their bodies, they immediately swam to the mirrors and used the reflection to look at the ink marks.
They understood that mirrors created a reflection of themselves.
In a 1962 study, scientists for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation placed a barrier of sensitive microphones
around a channel where the dolphins passed regularly. The idea was to record their noises as they passed. But they were surprised
when the dolphins detected the devices and gathered in a group, about 400 feet away. Lots of strange clicks and squeaky sounds
were recorded. Then a scout left the group, swam up to the devices for a close examination. It returned to the group and seemed
to be in an estimated four minute conversation. Then a second scout was sent. On his return he was greeted with an explosion
of whistles. After about another two minutes of communication the dolphins swam through the channel. After this they passed
daily without concern.
Dr. Lilly wrote about yet another amazing feat in which a dolphin watched as he assembled a device
designed to stimulate a reward at the push of a lever. "While I was assembling it, I noticed that the dolphin was closely
watching what I was doing. Almost before I could finish assembling and placing the rods necessary to push the switch, the
dolphin started pushing on the rod. By the time the switch was connected to the rest of the apparatus he had learned the proper
way to push it. The dolphin seemed to understand the design of the device and the purpose of the switch even before Lilly
was finished assembling it.
In yet another experiment, Lilly was attempting to make a dolphin whistle at a given pitch, duration
and intensity to earn a reward. The dolphin quickly caught on to this new game. To whistle a dolphin must emit air in a certain
way through its blowhole. As he worked Lilly noticed that the dolphin had added a new rule to this game. With each new whistle,
it was raising the pitch. When it reached a certain level, Lilly noticed the blowhole twitched but there was no sound. The
dolphin had passed our hearing range. With no sound the animal received no reward. After this the dolphin would not go out
of Lilly's acoustic range. It was an experiment performed on a human by another species to gain information that the dolphin used
later for communication purposes.
Humor and playing are considered high on the evolutionary ladder. And the dolphins spend much of
their time at both play and playing practical jokes on the other animals around them. They have been seen plucking a bird's
tail feathers from behind, pulling fish around by the tail, rolling turtles over and tossing manta rays in their mouths like
Anthropologist Gregory Bateson determined that dolphins live in social groups dominated by a leader.
He wrote that this tie is so strong that dolphins kept in total isolation will suffer ill health and possibly death. It has
also been observed that dolphins frequently stroke each other with their flippers. It is an indication that they enjoy and
may even require physical contact much like humans. A dolphin's skin is extremely delicate and easily injured by rough surfaces--very
similar to human skin.
Also like humans, dolphins are sensual. They caress one another constantly. They are the only other
species to have intercourse when the female is not in estrus, just because they enjoy it.