Subject: Re: Dolphins and Communication

Phil Clapham (
Fri, 08 Jan 1999 12:47:40 -0500

Hi Matthew:

Hmm, that's an interesting one.  Most of the work you refer to was
conducted by Dr Lou Herman and colleagues at the University of Hawaii
and it certainly is interesting (it also suggests that dolphins are
capable of understanding grammatical rules and creating novel syntax).

Your question is better directed to Lou Herman, but my answer would be"
it depends.  I'm not sure whether the use of mathematics would be
preferable to doing something akin to what's been tried with primates
using sign language (in this case, it would presumably have to be
symbols).  Introduction of abstract concepts (such as Where, When, Why
etc) would be important to this, and I don't know if that has been
attempted by the Hawaii group or others.

Your question raises the whole issue of cetacean intelligence.  My view
of this has always been that, if you remove all the romantic ideas of
what we'd LIKE cetaceans to be, you still have some species that are
pretty smart.  The problem is how to define intelligence - especially
for a species whose environment and anatomy (no hands etc) is
fundamentally different from ours - and whether  we can apply human
concepts or measures of intelligence to other species.  Having worked
with these critters for many years, I'd support the general view that:
a) baleen whales are not dreadfully bright (much as I love them); b)
toothed whales are probably, in general, smarter than baleen whales; and
c) we really don't know what goes on in those large brains that some
dolphins have.

Phil Clapham

Matthew Thomas wrote:
> Dolphins have been proven to have a sense of self when they are
> presented with a mirror.  They also have the ability to take direction
> from video shows on tv using hand signals they are familuar with.  They
> are also capable of picking great detail the obstract shapes with their
> sonar. I just had a thought that we may actually be able to break the
> communication barrier with mathmatics.  Mad or genus?
> What do you think?
> >From the Thomas Home


Phillip J. Clapham, Ph.D.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center
166 Water Street
Woods Hole, MA 02543

tel (508) 495-2316
fax (508) 495-2066