Connecting the dots between dolphins, humans

From large brains to bonds, family ties


Cathy turned 44 in 2010. She has four offspring, of which three have gone off to have their own offspring, and so on. Cathy is a great-great-great grandmother.

And she is also a dolphin.

The Sarasota Dolphin Research Program is studying Cathy and her family, and this program has closely observed how this big dolphin family sticks together.

However, Cathy’s family is not as big as it should be, for three of her descendents have died from stingray barbs. Despite these losses, Cathy and her family have a close bond, perhaps even closer than bonds in some human families.

Dolphins are similar to humans. They have large brains in proportion to their bodies; they form bonds with other dolphins that can last a lifetime; the dorsal fins on  dolphins are as distinctive as human faces.

“Family, or pod, ties between dolphins are extremely strong, and personally I think it’s not only adorable, but an extremely positive thing for the dolphin species in general,” said Eileen Murray, an oceanography student at the University of Miami. “The bonds between them are so strong; dolphins have been seen physically supporting sick or dying members of their pod.”

Dolphins can interact with each other in strong ways, including with vocals. “Dolphins can mimic sounds perfectly and are definitely able to communicate with each other,” said Brian Watson, a zoologist who has studied dolphins and worked at Palm Beach Zoo in South Florida.

Experts don’t know how close this communication comes to an actual language, but, as Aristotle once wrote, “The voice of the dolphin in the air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with the consonants.”

Watson said experts disagree on the extent of capabilities of dolphin communication. Some believe it is intricate while others say that dolphins just use simple sounds to communicate with each other.

The word dolphin encompasses many different species, including the killer whale. The most commonly thought of species is the bottlenose dolphin.

“Because they have to breathe so often, usually every one to two minutes and never really more than every four minutes, bottlenose dolphins are spotted by many people when they are at the beach,” Murray said.

Dolphins are mammals, but there are even some dolphinfish, which are served in restaurants as Mahi Mahi.

Murray told of being at a sushi restaurant the other night: “The friend I was with ordered Mahi Mahi and he did not believe me when I told him it was not what he was thinking, that he had ordered a dolphinfish, not what he pictured as a dolphin.”

Bottlenose dolphins can jump up to 20 feet out of the water and some even swim close to the shores on some beaches, which is another reason they are the best-known species of dolphin and why there are so many dolphin sightings near South Florida beaches.

There are other ways to get a closer look at dolphins in South Florida.

Key West Tours takes passengers to the Wild Dolphin Playground in the shallow tropical waters off Key West. It also takes passengers out on a Catamaran to see wild dolphins and other sea creatures in their natural habitat. The tour lasts four hours and departs from Key West at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

The Miami Seaquarium lets guests swim with dolphins as well as watch dolphins’ shows and feedings.

“Swimming with dolphins is good for the dolphins as well,’’ Watson said. “They enjoy human contact and affection. The extent of their commitment to family and their pods is comparable to the commitment of humans to family and friends.”

More like this: Wild Things

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