Dolphins determine their surroundings by listening to echoes. Can they mimic those echoes and communicate it to other dolphins, transmitting an "image"? Does the same go for all echolocators?

  • $\begingroup$ Until a day comes when you can tell one dolphin what image to "transmit", and then ask another what image it "saw", it's pretty hard to imagine an experiment that would let you test that idea. $\endgroup$ Nov 15 '15 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ Humans can get some spatial information from the sounds that they hear. Close your eyes, and listen to some good stereo mixes of music through headphones, and you will get a sense of a "space" around you with different instruments at different locations within that space. Now try listening to the same mix in mono (or, with just one ear bud in place.) All the spatial information is gone! Whatever sounds one dolphin is able to make, it's still just one dolphin---just like one earbud... $\endgroup$ Nov 15 '15 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ Cheers, that makes sense. $\endgroup$ Nov 15 '15 at 19:27

As I understand your question, dolphins (and other echolators) can more or less map out their "surroundings" (which might include nearby ice floes, for example). It sounds like you're asking if they can then transmit that knowledge to other members of their species.

I don't know the answer, and I suspect no one does. However, it's hard to imagine why one dolphin would need to tell another dolphin about its surroundings when the second dolphin ought to be able to map its surroundings all by itself.

Cetaceans do communicate with each other, presumably alerting each other to danger (e.g. predators) and the presence of prey.

Incidentally, I worked on an acoustic study of bowhead whales in the Arctic Ocean years ago. We recorded bowheads and Arctic seals, which make some unbelievable sounds. We operated under the presumption that they were primarily "sounding out" their environment - searching for open areas in the ice where they could breathe, for example. It's possible that one whale might say "Hey, I found a breathing hole!" without mimicking the echoes that alerted it to that hole.

Sorry, that's not really a direct answer, but it might help put things in perspective.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for a reasonable answer, but a human could draw a map of a dangerous area to warn later travellers. Assuming dolphins can do this, it would be a good reason for them to communicate the landscape to each other. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Nov 16 '15 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ People create maps to aid people who they are independent of. For example, a person who explores Tibet might create a map to help people who travel there in the future. A pod of dolphins will presumably use echolocation to map out their surroundings simultaneously, just as a group of people will simultaneously see a spotlight. It's possible that one dolphin might want to describe the surroundings, but it doesn't sound logical to me. $\endgroup$ Nov 16 '15 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ Please could you add some supporting scientific material that reinforces your answer and allows further reading. $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Mar 8 '16 at 7:37

I have just asked a similar question in scifi.stackexchange and the reason is, I believe your idea can be found in a book written perhaps 60 years ago. I asked who the author was and/or the name of the book.

I am pretty sure this has been substantiated by researchers -- not recalling how the experiment was set up but I think it essentially involved simulating the dolphin echolocation process and then comparing sounds the dolphin emitted when shown the object or perhaps the researchers produced the sounds for a dolphin and asked the dolphin the choose from among objects.

So while a human might draw an object to explain to another human what they wanted, etc., a dolphin could do the same thing with sound. Perhaps their nouns all resemble the signals that come back during echolocation but I would also bet they abbreviate them since their probably is a lot of excess information in the signal from an actual object.

They would have the natural idea of "instance" and "class" (I speculate). And if cetacean language does consist of abbreviated signals from objects, I do not wonder why they have such large brains.

Here is a link that seems to indicate the answer to your question is "yes": https://www.cymascope.com/cetacean.html

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    $\begingroup$ Your answer is much more likely to receive a favorable response if you edit it to include supporting references (primary literature is best; a commercial website with no references is of no value). Without that support, your answer is indistinguishable from opinion and not appropriate as an answer on this site. ——— Please take the tour and then consult the help center pages for additional advice on How to Answer effectively on this site and then edit or delete your answer accordingly. Thanks! 😊 $\endgroup$
    – tyersome
    Dec 2 '20 at 18:21

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