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Dolphins who Dream of Whales

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jan 13, 2012 7:02 PMNov 5, 2019 12:14 AM


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Once in a while you come across a paper that can only be described as lovely. This is one: Do dolphins rehearse show-stimuli when at rest?

Five dolphins lived in a certain aquarium in France. Every day, they put on shows for people - jumping around, that kind of thing. One day the aquarium started playing a 20-minute clip of "intro music" for the show. This consisted of various oceanic sounds including sea birds, dolphin noises and some whale-song.

What happened next was amazing. About a month about they brought in the intro sounds, the researchers noticed some odd sounds coming from the dolphins, late at night. It turned out that the dolphins had started making whale noises.

They only did this at night, mostly between 1 am and 3 am, when they were resting, possibly even sleeping. No-one trained them to do this. The "atypical vocalizations" were much lower than the dolphin's normal whistles, and also lasted longer.

Unfortunately, it wasn't possible to tell how many of the dolphins did this.

The authors recorded the dolphin's whale impressions with an underwater microphone, and played them back to a sample of 20 biologists, who weren't told the hypothesis of the study. Many of them thought they were whale-song, especially when the clips were slowed down to half-speed, dolphin's voices being "higher" than whales'.

Why the dolphins did this is a mystery. All of them had been born in captivity, so they'd never encountered a real whale. One theory is that they were mentally rehearsing the events of the day to come. Maybe they were even dreaming about them and "talking in their sleep" - although this is unclear, because it's not known whether dolphins dream; don't exactly sleep in the same way we do.

The paper's open access and it even comes with some audio clips of the dolphins, although unless you're familiar with what they sound like normally these aren't very meaningful.

Kremers D, Jaramillo MB, Böye M, Lemasson A, & Hausberger M (2011). Do dolphins rehearse show-stimuli when at rest? Delayed matching of auditory memory. Frontiers in Psychology, 2 PMID: 22232611

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