Extraordinary Animals - Tuesday January 22

extraordinary animals
the super ‘sonic’ dolphin (6/7)

Continuing tonight is the documentary series profiling a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. Tonight’s film introduces Luna, a sixyear-old bottlenose dolphin whose starring role in a radical new scientific project is allowing humans and dolphins to communicate on a new level.

The Kolmården dolphinarium near Sweden’s Baltic coast is home to a group of captive bottlenose dolphins who partake in a series of displays for the public. Regular training for the tourist shows is part of the animals’ daily routine, but these dolphins do not only entertain. Outside of the limelight, six-year-old Luna is part of a unique experiment by scientists to better understand dolphin communication.

Leading the experiment at Kolmården is Professor Mats Amundin, a biologist who has studied wild and captive dolphins for over 40 years. “Dolphins have a complex way of communicating among themselves,” he explains. “They have a way of expressing emotions via sound which can be very advanced and very dynamic.”

Dolphins have good eyesight and can convey messages using tactile and visual signals, but poor visibility in the murky depths of the water means that the acoustic channel is the most important means of communication. Using an elaborate system of squeaks, whistles and clicks, dolphins can detect danger, hunt and communicate with each other over great distances.

Among the noises that dolphins make, Professor Amundin has recognised what he calls a “dolphin giggle” –a pulsed sound followed by a whistle emitted by young animals when they playfight. But this is just one of hundreds of different combinations of whistles and clicks in a dolphin’s repertoire. Deciphering these sounds may hold the key to unlocking the secrets of dolphin intelligence.

At the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Dr Vincent Janik has been studying bottlenose dolphins in Scotland and the Bahamas. Using specialised underwater microphones called hydrophones, he has recorded the chatter of a number of animals and concluded that each animal creates its own signature whistle which it uses to broadcast its identity within the group. “Each animal invents this sound by itself,” he explains. After collecting the recordings of dolphin communication, Dr Janik uses a computer to process the data and extract whistle patterns. However, this method of decoding takes hundreds of hours and provides inconclusive evidence as to the meaning of the numerous sounds.

Back in Sweden, Professor Amundin has come up with a radical idea that he hopes will provide an alternative route into the dolphin’s mind. “I wanted to have something that could convert their sound into something that we humans are good at –namely vision,” he explains. To this end, he has developed a giant underwater computer game called an echolocation visualisation and interface system –or ELVIS, for short. The system projects different shapes –each representing a fish –onto a large submersible screen. Using echolocation –the dolphin’s answer to sonar – Luna and the other dolphins are able to choose what fish they want to eat. As a youngster, Luna is the quickest to grasp the technique and is able to hit her chosen target instantly every time.

ELVIS is only in its infancy, but Professor Amundin hopes that it can be used in the future to help captive dolphins choose toys, play music and reveal their emotions. But there is a far more important aspect to Amundin’s research. In understanding more about echolocation, he hopes that thousands of dolphins and porpoises in the wild can be saved from fatal entanglements in fishing nets. At Kolmården, Luna will never know the beauty, freedom and danger of the wild, but she is playing a very important role in the conservation of her species. “One of the most exciting things with dolphins,” concludes Amundin, “is that we have so much more to learn.”

About the author

  • Anonymous

    brilliant – aren’t animals extraordinary. Wouldn’t watch this show again though

  • Anonymous

    Elvis lives!

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1