dolphin

Characteristics and Species

Dolphins are fishlike in form, with streamlined, hairless bodies. Their powerful, horizontal flukes, or tail fins, drive them through or out of the water, while their forefins and dorsal fin are used for steering. Constantly shedding their skins, dolphins accumulate no barnacles or other external parasites. A layer of blubber protects them from cold and seals small wounds. Dolphins breathe air through a single, dorsal blowhole.

The dolphin's intelligence, playfulness, and friendliness, its built-in smile and merry-looking eyes have been a source of interest and enchantment to human beings from earliest times; it is a common figure in mythology and literature and has been much depicted in art, especially in the posture of its graceful, arched, 30-ft (9-m) leap. Dolphins have long been famous for riding the bows of ships, and it is now known that they also ride the bows of large whales. Today they are valued and exploited as entertainers in more than 40 water shows around the world and have thus become available for extensive study.

The best known species are the common dolphin ( Delphinus delphis ), of worldwide distribution, and the bottle-nosed dolphin ( Tursiops truncatus ), found in coastal waters of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The bottlenose has been particularly intensively studied; it is presumed that much of what is known about this species applies to other dolphins and even to the large whales.

Common Dolphin

The common dolphin averages 8 ft (2.4 m) in length and 165 lb (75 kg) in weight. It has a dark blue or black upper body, a white underbody, golden stripes on the sides, and a sickle-shaped dorsal fin. Its pronounced, slim beak, holding 100 teeth, is separated from its snout by a deep groove. A fast swimmer, it travels in large schools in warm waters and is noted for leaping alongside boats for long distances. Its life span is about 50 years.

Bottle-nosed Dolphin

The bottle-nosed dolphin is blue-gray with a dorsal fin and white belly. Its average length is 9 ft (2.7 m) and its average weight 350 lb (160 kg). Its domed forehead, called the melon, contains an oily substance thought to protect the brain case and to act as an acoustic lens. With age the 200 or more teeth of the bottlenose wear down, hence the name truncatus. Members of this species live about 25 years. Bottle-nosed dolphins swim in large schools with a social organization and hierarchy, hunting the small fish, crustaceans, squid, and cuttlefish that make up their diet. They have been clocked swimming at 30 mi (48 km) per hour, although 20 to 24 mi (32–39 km) per hour is their usual speed. They can dive 70 ft (20 m) and remain underwater for 15 minutes. They sleep by night, just below the surface of the water, rising for air every three or four minutes.

Their aquatic natural enemies are sharks and killer whales; these they attempt to outswim, using complex evasive strategy, or batter to death, acting in a group. If one of their number is injured or sick they make every effort to rescue it, holding it above the water for air. Play behavior is highly developed in the bottlenose from infancy through old age, and in this connection it displays considerable tool-making, tool-using, and manipulative ability; for example, a dolphin has been observed to kill a fish, strip its skeleton, and use the bones, held in the mouth, to pry another fish out of a crevice. Sex play is frequent and is initiated by any individual toward any other, without regard to size, age, sex, relationship, or even species; approaches to human beings and to turtles are common.

Courtship and impregnation occur mainly in spring, when males vie for the attention of the females. A single calf, 31/2 ft (97 cm) long and weighing 30 lb (14 kg), is born tail first after a gestation of 12 months. The mother or a female assistant bites the umbilical cord in two and pushes the calf to the surface to breathe; it is nursed for one to two years. One female may watch over several calves while the mothers hunt, or during battle.

The senses of the bottlenose have been subjected to intensive investigation, as have their intelligence and their remarkable systems of echolocation and communication. In relation to body size, the brain of the adult bottlenose is comparable in size to that of humans; it is twice as convoluted and possesses 11/2 times as many cells. The bottlenose has partially stereoscopic vision that is keen both in water and in air; when the animal leaps from one medium to the other, its brain corrects for the difference in refractive index. The eye has a glowing layer for night vision and a brownish filter that is lowered over the iris in bright sunlight. The brain has no olfactory lobe and the sense of smell is presumably missing, but the taste buds are well developed and are used to detect underwater chemical traces, as when the dolphin tracks fish.

Echolocation and Communication

Dolphins produce an enormous variety of sounds, up to frequencies ten times those heard by human beings. The sounds are apparently produced by a complex of anatomical structures including the blowhole with its air sacs and valves. Each dolphin has a signature whistle with which it identifies itself; a calf soon learns to recognize its mother's whistle. Clicking and rapid creaking sounds are the basis of the echolocation mechanism (sonar) with which the dolphin gathers extremely precise information about the size, location, and nature of surrounding objects. Dolphins communicate by means of a demonstrably descriptive language understood by more than one species, using all the sounds in their repertory. They are observed to converse, and it has been repeatedly shown that one animal can convey instructions to another. Computer-aided efforts are being made, so far without success, to learn the dolphin language and to teach dolphins human speech, either in its normal form or translated into whistle combinations.

Interaction with Humans

Dolphins are capable of imitation and memorization; they demonstrate foresight, learn from observation, communicate experience, solve complex problems, perform elaborate tasks, and learn multiple procedures simultaneously. Their so-called training is in fact a discipline structured around play, using their natural behavior as the basis for involved maneuvers; they appear to perform primarily for their own enjoyment. In situations of great stress in captivity they have been known to commit suicide by starvation, battering against walls, or drowning. There are many reports of dolphins rescuing people from drowning.

The United States and Russian/Soviet navies have spent vast sums to reach a greater understanding of dolphin echolocation, which could have countless military applications. The U.S. navy has trained dolphins to act as messengers to underwater stations, to rescue wounded scuba divers and protect them from sharks, to locate and mark underwater mines, and to seek and destroy submarines, using kamikaze methods; this last project met with considerable public criticism.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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