SCUBA divers spend a lot of time admiring the marine life they meet, so understandably we often anthropomorphize what we see. While this is usually a failing, when we look at marine life, in particular dolphins and whales, it’s important to remember just how intelligent they are.
They may not look like us, but the brains of dolphins are 300 grams heavier than our own. Beluga whales have even larger brains than dolphins.
But do those brains work to produce intelligence?
A little over a year ago, a 4-year-old beluga whale was moved into the Dolphinarium Koktebel aquarium in Crimea. This aquarium contained only dolphins, which meant the highly sociable beluga whale suddenly had nobody to talk to except dolphins. Creatures he’d never seen before.
After only 2 months he was talking ‘Dolphin.’ While humans remain unable to properly translate either language, we can identify sounds that we associate with communication, and of course the specific sounds that dolphins use to identify each other. Their names.
Not only had the beluga whale learned a new language, he was talking to dolphins, and being replied to in their own language. And when talking to a dolphin, he could be identified as using the correct individual dolphin’s name. Which is of course highly indicative that he wasn’t merely parroting dolphin sounds.
1 year on from the beluga whale’s introduction to the dolphins, and recordings show that the language structure used by the beluga is the same as it was at the 2-month mark. This is important as it shows that his ability to grasp the language was already at its maximum potential after just 2 months.
Other people have talked about this startling linguistic adaptation, and normally they focus on the physiology, and marine environment. Instead I’d like to put this into human terms; so it’s easier to appreciate how important this is in terms of identifying the intelligence of the whale.
Imagine you were an English-speaking prisoner of war. (I use this analogy as the beluga whale hasn’t chosen his captivity, and humans do still kill them.)
You were kept in an English-speaking prison, but suddenly you are transferred to a French speaking prison. Everyone around you speaks French, and you are very much an outsider. There is nobody there that speaks both languages, and no written text or guide to use as a rosetta stone.
Do you think that after just 2 months you would not only know all the French-speaking prisoners’ names, but also be able to converse with them in their own language?
The research has been published in the journal Animal Cognition, if you wish to research further.
Colin is an inventor, author, guitar player, amateur scientist and steampunk enthusiast. During his years as a ships navigator his luck was so consistently bad that he was briefly known as ‘Jonah’, presumed cursed, and subsequently barred from setting foot on any boat docked in Ireland. Due to his misadventures he spent more time underwater than most divers will achieve in a lifetime. Not deliberately, but he was still down there!