I spent several years working from an island field station on the Great Barrier Reef. Although most of my time was spent working long hours with fish along the reef slope, I came to recognize a group of three bottlenose dolphins that regularly passed through my study site. They never came close but seemed interested in what I was up to. I found that if I ignored them and hammered small steel pins into the bottom (used as markers), the dolphins would come up behind me and look over my shoulder. If I turned, they were gone in a flash.
I’ve also spent hours cleaning windows in an oceanarium when I was going through university. Lots of things swam around behind me then but I feel that the dolphins were either bored or had little interest because of the regularity of my job with the brush.
Now I am working in Datai Bay and often see Chinese Humpback or White Dolphins. Again they are curious but incredibly shy.
The Chinese White Doplhin
Let’s look at a single question based on what we know about dolphins today;
Do dolphins have emotions and feelings like our own?
If we look at dolphins anatomically, we see that they have a well developed limbic system. The limbic system is a collection of neural material that is part of the ancient mammalian brain. It is common to mammals.
The limbic system supports a number of functions including emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory and olfaction. In humans it has a lot to do with our emotional life and is vital to the formation of memories.
But as a scientist, I have to ask the question, “Do we know if the limbic system in dolphins performs the same role as in humans?” The answer is we don’t know.
We do know that memory for dolphins are very important since they live in a world with only visual and olfactory clues for navigation. We might assume that as long lived animals, the amount of memory stored would be large.
A pod of wild dolphins must use a good memory map for navigation.
We also know that dolphins ‘express’ emotion. I say this because we can’t really know what they are feeling; we can only imagine our feeling in the same situation.
An example would be the loss of an offspring. More advanced mammals seem to behave as we do and mourn. Again this is an interpretation. Less advanced mammals and even many non-mammals may seem to do the same.
Do dolphins enjoy human contact?
Unfortunately, the scientific facts just aren’t in yet. From my perspective dolphins have emotions but not at the human level. They show curiosity similar to other advanced mammals but again from my perspective they are not as emotional or curious as monkeys and apes (just my opinion!).
My next post will look at what we know about dolphin intelligence and ask;
“Do dolphins think?"