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The Language of Dolphins

For 28 years, Denise Herzing has spent five months each summer living with a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins, following three generations of family relationships and behaviors

Think About It

  1. Dr. Herzing says dolphins interested her because of their large brains and what they might be doing with them in the wild. What animals interest you the most and why?
  2. For nearly 30 years, Dr. Herzing has spent five months a year out on a boat and in the water with the dolphins. What do you think would be the most wonderful thing about this, and what do you think would be the hardest?
  3. A brain to body ratio second only to humans, the ability to understand artificially created languages, use tools, and pass self-awareness tests are all things Dr. Herzing shares to explain dolphins' high intelligence. Which of these is most impressive to you? What is a sign of intelligence humans have that dolphins don't (that we know of)?
  4. Dr. Herzing muses about what we would talk about with dolphins if we could communicate with them. What would you like to ask a dolphin? What do you think a dolphin would like to ask you? Who do think is more curious about the other — dolphins or humans?
  5. There was a six-year difference in the maturity ages between male and female dolphins. Why do you think dolphin males mature so much more slowly than females? What advantages could this give dolphins?
  6. Each dolphin has unique spot patterns. Do you think dolphins use those to recognize each other, or do you think they rely on the sound of their signature (or "name") whistle? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of each of those methods?
  7. The enemies of dolphins are, in order of which kills more dolphins: man, sharks, dolphins. Dolphins are their own enemies in a sense because orcas (killer whales) sometimes eat them, and orcas are the largest of the dolphin family (Delphinidae). How are humans sometimes their own worst enemies?
  8. Dolphins have a strong sense of sight, taste, sound, and touch, but not smell. Why do you think that is, and what do you think humans' weakest sense is?
  9. Dr. Herzing says the dolphins create many types of sounds, including their signature whistle, echolocation clicks, buzzes, and burst pulse sounds. Visit the Wild Dolphin project website and listen to the dolphins. Can you identify any of these kinds of sounds from what you're hearing? Now listen to the different sounds isolated. Revisit Wild Dolphin Project and see if you can identify them more easily.
  10. Although Dr. Herzing focuses her research on the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin (Stenella frontalis), she describes how they interact with another species of dolphin, the Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) — joining together to babysit each other's calves and form temporary alliances when chasing sharks away. In her talk, she shares video of the way the dolphins synchronize their sounds and body postures to sound and appear bigger. Can you think of other animals that do similar things? How do some human behaviors simulate this dynamic as well?
  11. Dolphins play by dragging seaweed around, playing Keep Away with it, and teaching the game to their young. This doesn't necessarily sound that fun to humans. What does it really mean to "play," and what might explain why something would be fun to one species and not to another? Is play a sign of intelligence?
  12. Dr. Herzing hopes the dolphins will learn to mimic the different whistles associated with the different objects and divers, creating a common language. Based on what you've seen so far, do you think that is likely? Why or why not?
  13. In an interview, Dr. Herzing was asked why she liked dolphins so much. She responded:
    I think intelligence recognizes intelligence. Awareness of another sentient species by simply looking into an eye and noting that something is behind that eye is incredible. Dolphins make it clear that they are aware of you, and can engage you as no other wild animal can engage a human being. I think the ultimate bonding for me comes from not only a mutual awareness, but also a respect for each other. I want them to be dolphins; they probably want us to be humans. The question is where can we meet and what can we learn. It's a relationship, you want the other to be themselves (hopefully) and that is what you enjoy about them.
    Have you ever looked into an animal's eyes and realized that "something" was behind that eye? She says that bonding is based on respect, not just awareness. What do you think it means to truly respect animals? How is what she said about "intelligence recognizing intelligence" true, and what does that mean to you?

Do It

  • Observe an animal (a bird, a squirrel, even your own pet) for 30 days, recording everything you notice about it, taking pictures and video, and noting eating habits, sleeping cycles, or other behaviors. Record your observations in a journal, and review them at the end of the 30 days. What do you know about this animal now that you didn't know before?
  • Make an origami dolphin! Find instructions (including a link to a printable set of directions) here.
  • You can find dolphin activities to do (online games, coloring pages and more) at Donlphinkind.
  • Cut and color your own dolphin.

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The TED Talks used in this program are copyright TED Conferences LLC and distributed under a Creative Commons license for noncommercial and non-derivative use. For more information, please see the TED Talks Usage Policy.