Dolphin Saves Beached Whales Using… Language of the Sea?

By Lizzie Buchen | March 12, 2008 4:56 pm

dolphins.jpgDolphins always seem to find the most bizarre ways to make the headlines. In their most recent adventure, it appears that a dolphin named Moko has come to the rescue of two beached pygmy whales—by “communicating with the whales and leading them to safety,” according to the BBC.

Malcolm Smith, who was at the scene, said “there was obviously something that went on because the two whales changed their attitude from being quite distressed to following the dolphin quite willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea.” This extraordinary tale of cetacean correspondence was also covered by CNN, The LA Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and various Australian papers.

So what happened out there between Moko and the whales? Did she really communicate with them? If so, do these animals share a language—dolphinese perhaps?

According to the Dolphin Communication Project, dolphins certainly communicate—they convey information using a variety of kinds of physical contact, visual signals, and sounds, such as “whistles, creaks, chuffs, screams, squawks, pops, and chirps.” Using these signals, they can communicate information about their reproductive state, age, and gender, and even emotions. But while scientists acknowledge that dolphins have a complicated communication system, there’s no evidence that they have a language—at least the way humans define it.

The difference, according to the DCP, is that there is no evidence that dolphin communication can do the following:

  1. “Refer to objects in their environment
  2. Refer to abstract concepts
  3. Combine small meaningful elements into larger meaningful elements
  4. Organize communicative elements into a systematic grammar that can produce an infinite combination of meanings
  5. Refer to things in the past and the future
  6. Learn and store in memory the meanings of hundreds of thousands of concepts and map them onto specific combinations of vocal patterns.”

So without these capabilities, how did Moko talk the whales into returning to sea? Or have the scientists been wrong this whole time, and those chuffs and squawks are actually referring to complex ideas?

The DCP has their own take on the story, where they note that “Moko may have been able to communicate with them on some level – it is likely that different species of cetaceans share communication signals to some extent…Moko’s communication with the pygmy sperm whales in this news story was not likely to have occurred on a complex, semantic-rich level, but if the account of the events in question is indeed true, then the whales did seem to respond to Moko on some level.” They note, however, that “the whales may not have had the slightest idea what Moko was all about, but simply followed her as she swam out to sea by the sheer coincidence of her being there. With an anecdote like this, it is impossible to say what the cause of the behavior in question was.”

A key point is the notion of “motive”—animals communicate to one another to achieve a goal. Although cetaceans are intelligent, it seems premature to endow Moko and the whales with such an extraordinary understanding of each other’s emotional and motivational states—not to mention each others’ vocabulary.

MORE ABOUT: dolphins, language
  • brittany

    If you would like to discuss this incredible animal communication further or find up to date news and information on marine animals, check out: today!

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  • misha

    we humans are arrogant. how can we be so sure of our research, no matter how many years long? I persist in believing nature to be far grander and more mysterious than we can imagine.

  • Jennifer

    Why not take things like this @ face value? It is what it is, sometimes.
    Why so many humans find the need to hold on so tightly to the belief that we are the pinnacle of intelligence and spirit on Earth or anywhere else? Some of us don’t have grandiose delusions over nature including the animal kingdom, but would rather be a piece of something so amazing. So as many humans try to separate themselves from nature there will always be those of us searching for a ‘unified theory’ to our way of life.
    I guess this and the other story recently about a group of dolphins that without question saved a small group of people swimming unknowingly w/ a great white shark in the water, is just another misinterpretation of events. Not to those people that spent 45 minutes in the water. Too many of these stories out there for there not to be some validity to them.
    *skepticism is always good though, that’s what inspires others to find the proof*

  • Amos Kenigsberg

    Hi, Jennifer. There’s little doubt that dolphins have a capacity for intelligence and compassion that sometimes drives them to save other dolphins and people. But how much can they really communicate with whales? It would be like a person walking up to a strange chimp or monkey (I don’t too much about the specific taxonomy of cetaceans) and communicating with it.

    I suppose you could say that it might be easier for species that haven’t “separate[d] themselves from nature,” but I definitely wonder how this could happen.

  • Jon

    Face value? sorry Jennifer, but we are the pinnacle of intelligence on Earth. That’s why we control it. I’m in Manhattan, and I look out the window and all I see are the consequences of human beings (and the physical laws which we exploit)–cars, buildings, lights, some potted plants, clocks. No dolphins out there.

  • Jennifer

    Hi, Amos. First off, let me say how nice it is to hear from someone that can see the “capacity for intelligence and compassion” in dolphons. And you have a valid veiw. I agree that communication between dolphins and whales may not be like you and I speaking, but I feel it may be something a kin to an English speaking person going to China. They wouldn’t have a conversation, but somehow the meaning of ‘danger’ or ‘help’ or ‘follow me’ might be understood. But even if you change it to an animals and a person it can happen…I rescue dogs and cats and work for a wild animal rehabilitation center and see this often. Jane Goodall is a great example of this. She has shown that when you live w/ a different species as long as she has you learn from each other on how to communicate. So back to my point from the article…dolphins are constantly bombarded w/ whales communicating and visa versa, so who are we to say that didn’t pick some of it up or just simply understand a ‘helping hand’ when it is given. I admit I don’t know, I’m just not so quick to rule it out.

    And as for Jon:
    The fact that you see humans as the pinnacle of Earthly intelligence because of what you see outside your Manhattan window says enough for me.

  • Amos Kenigsberg

    Jennifer: Fair enough. Maybe I’ll have to do some first-hand research on cetaceans’ cross-species communication, hopefully based on some tropical island…

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  • Betsy Lawlor

    In response to Amos Kenigsberg and the general thread:

    One of my (anthropology) students told me about this case today, and it got me thinking about what we know from other animal communication research.

    Today’s class included that vervet monkeys have alarm calls they recognize among themselves. Vervet monkeys have lots of sounds that appear to have meaning but fall short of the language standards listed above from the DCP. But when scientists play a recording of certain calls over a loudspeaker, the monkeys respond “appropriately” — e.g., if the original call was made when there was a leopard nearby, then the monkeys act as if there’s a leopard upon hearing the recorded call.

    Here’s a link with videos and sound clips of this behavior!

    Now a very cool part is that these monkeys also recognize and respond appropriately to the alarm calls of other species, including “other primates, ungulates [cloven-hoofed mammals] and birds. ”, citing Estes 1991.

    Amos Kenigsberg wondered about cetacean taxonomy; pygmy sperm whales understanding dolphins would be roughly like vervet monkeys understanding other primates. This was observed in the wild prior to 1991. However, Mr. Kenigsberg thought it would be akin to *strangers* communicating, and for all we know, the mother pygmy sperm whale could have known Moko the dolphin for years.

    It would be surprising if intelligent social mammals were *not* aware of the basic communication of other species in their habitat. There’s a clear selective advantage for this type of awareness. Of course, “basic communication” isn’t necessarily “language”, as discussed very well in Ibuchen’s blog.

    Still, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

  • Amos Kenigsberg

    Hi, Betsy. Thanks for the useful info.

    Seems to me there’s a significant difference between simply recognizing an alarm call and the communication that conservation officer Malcolm Smith says he saw. Alarm calls uttered by worried animals may generally have qualities (harsh, piercing, high-pitched, repeated) that tend to worry other individuals, and it would be easy to imagine this carrying across species.

    But as Lizzie and you point out, whales and dolphins are both intelligent and social animals. The communication story doesn’t sound as strange when you think that dolphins lead other dolphins around all the time—perhaps even leading each other out of danger—and they may have standard instinctive and/or learned acts of communication that facilitate this social behavior.

  • Betsy Lawlor

    Hi, Amos,

    Your point about alarm calls having ‘worry-inducing’ qualities is well taken. It reminds me of how a baby’s cry produces stress in everyone around, even including the family dog!

    I also agree with the rest of what you said. One other point that came up in conversation about this is that apparently dolphins and pygmy sperm whales have been observed — what to call it? — hanging out together? I don’t have a reference for this nor time to look one up, but perhaps someone else in this exchange could look for it? If these species in particular travel together, then this communication becomes even less surprising (though still amazing).

  • http://ExodusII Chad Higgins

    I was wondering what the exact day was Moko did this in November. Bill Koenig in the book Eye to Eye talks about freaking correlations with natural events and Israel. He predicted Katrina as something that would happen after the Gaza pull out. So what I am saying is in the Bible it says that “all men will be perplexed by the sound of the ocean.” Luke 21:25. The word sounds like our word for echo and is used in another place in the bible about the reverberation noise of a gong. This seems to fit exactly. There also may be some strange sign of Jonah thing here Jesus speaks of in Matthew 12:39. Maybe dolphins were trained by an advanced civilization that has been lost.

  • Romeo M. Marquez

    whales like elephants generaly understand the needs of the total collective meaning all sentient lifeforms on the planet. they are not indifferent to the concept of self sacrifice for the good of all. they are aware of the subtle corrolation between how certain gaseous particles affect the ecosystem and how marine life is connected to the production of compound substances which determine the weather and ecosystem such as dimethylsulfoniopropionate along with various other micro-organisms that preserve life on the planet. dolphins on the other hand communicate more in a playful compassionate sometimes mercilessly cruel maternal structure in consciousness. meaning they are of a more practical intelligence by nature and instinct -call it the selective process. life on land essentially has to be in balance with life in the sea. sentient beings do not share or have the degenerative compulsion of individualization by the human ego. most evolved beings on the planet recognize the basic eternal law that govern existence which reflect the the essence of immortality beyond tertiary boundaries. people do not feel as they can -we think in terms of living more in rhetoric than intuitively. the silent majority functions with love while people talk of it. one realized being is enough to save this world.
    but when one does -the ego of the masses can not tolerate what is apparent and subconsciously determines to undermine the growth or potential in others. personal responsibility and accountability is at a premium as they say and labels and harsh judgement prove this fact when genuine concern or consideration is construed as misanthropic or otherwise. it’s funny and absurd really….. because ultimately nature always finds a way.. :)

  • http://google Caitlin C. Escobar

    I am a lover of Dolphins, whales, and the underworld of the sea. Dolphins are part of the whale family. They use a communication device in their head called the melon which attracts many species such as fish for food, and common whales. Whales get washed up on beaches because of heat stress, following one another, and confusion.

    My name is Caitlin C. Escobar and I am 14 and I am a lover of whales
    Over 1400 whales are being washed on beaches every year
    1600 whales are killed for their meat

    If you really care for whales show it, and mean it. Help prevent the loss of Whales.
    Thank you

  • http://google CCE

    whales and shells
    smell like bells
    and some where it smells
    i cant decline i have no time



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