17 Facts About Dolphins That Will Make You Love Them Even More
The coolest creature of the sea might just be the coolest on the planet.
Everyone loves dolphins. They’re fun. They’re friendly. And they’re kind of having a moment. In recent years—as seen in popular documentaries like Blackfish (technically a dolphin) and The Cove—it’s become crystal clear that humans really, really care about the wellbeing of these finned creatures.
Well, get ready to care a whole lot more. As enchanting as dolphins are, the species as a whole is full of bottomless wonder. Here, you’ll find 17 jaw-dropping facts that prove dolphins are the coolest creatures in the sea—and possibly the coolest on the entire planet.
Dolphins Can Inhale Eight Gallons of Air in a Single Second
Researchers studying the breathing patterns of dolphins found that they could inhale eight gallons of air in a second and exhale 34 gallons per second—three times faster than humans, allowing them to replace as much as 95 percent of the air in their lungs in a single breath. For perspective, humans can only manage a measly 65 percent. It’s this combination of insane lung capacity and rapid air intake that allows dolphins to quickly hop above the surface and then plummet to unimaginable depths.
Dolphins Are Conscious Breathers
Humans are unconscious breathers. We breathe in and out without realizing it, whether we’re asleep or awake or just totally unaware. Dolphins, however, have to make an active decision on each and every breath. As Bruce Hecker, director of husbandry at the South Carolina Aquarium, told Scientific American, a dolphin must be fully aware that their blowhole is at the surface, and then deliberately make the choice to inhale.
Dolphins Live on Power Naps
Dolphins can’t just conk out for the night and get a solid 8 hours of peaceful sleep like we humans do—they’d drown if they tried it. (See: that whole active breathing thing.) Instead, they take power naps of 15 to 20 minutes throughout the day, allowing them to get rest without risking being under for too long.
Dolphins Sleep With One Eye Open
According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, dolphins only rest half of their brain at any given time. For one period of sleep, they’ll rest their left brain; then, they’ll do the same with their right brain.
That means that part of their brain can still open the blowhole while it’s above the water to take in air while the other part of the brain is sleeping. You can actually tell which part of their brain is currently active since the opposite eye remains open—allowing it to swim straight and watch for predators.
Dolphins Have the Longest Memories of Any Animal
Forget elephants—dolphins are the animals with the longest-lasting memories. Recent experiments published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B show that bottlenose dolphins can remember the whistles of other dolphins that they lived with even when they were separated from one another for two decades. While elephants and chimpanzees have both been found to have impressive recall, neither comes close to this long period of memory.
Baby Dolphins Are Born Tail First
To prevent drowning, a baby dolphin is born with its tail first, and the mother swiftly breaks the umbilical cord by swimming away fast before doing a U-turn and rapidly escorting her newborn to the surface so it can take a breath. In other words, the new mom does not get a lot of time to rest after giving birth. (Incidentally, when a baby dolphin nurses, it has to hold its breath.)
Dolphins Live in Rivers, Too
We usually think of dolphins as being dwellers of the salty ocean, but there are seven species of dolphin that prefer the fresh water of the river, including the Amazon river dolphin, the South American tucuxi, and the Irrawaddy dolphin (which can live in both salt and fresh water). Sadly, a number of these species are listed as endangered or vulnerable, such as the Ganges river dolphin, of which there are fewer than 2,000 left.
Some Can Jump as High as 15 Feet!
Dolphins can get some serious air. Researchers at the Wild Dolphin Foundation, for example, have reported seeing dolphins jump in the wild as high as 15 feet, with the spinner, spotted, and Commerson’s dolphins tending to be the highest jumpers. The reason for this behavior? It requires less energy to jump than swim, since the air is less dense than the water.
The Ancient Greeks Called Dolphins “Sacred Fish”
The ancient Greeks were big fans of dolphins, calling them “hieros ichthys,” which translates to “sacred fish.” The animals played a role in some Greek myths (usually portrayed as benevolent creatures assisting the characters). They were believed to be especially friendly to mankind, and killing a dolphin was considered sacrilegious.
Philosophers Are Major Dolphin Fans
Ancient thinkers such as Pliny, Herodotus, Aelian, and Aristotle commented on the moral nature of dolphins and their human-like traits. For example, Pliny tells the story of a boy who, swimming across a lake, encountered a dolphin that took him on his back and “carried the poor frightened fellow out into the deepest part; when immediately he turns back again to the shore, and lands him among his companions.” And Aristotle reflected on, “The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels.”
Dolphins Can Actually Speak to One Another
Aristotle was not wrong. Scientists have found that dolphins have “highly developed spoken language” much like humans, making a combination of pulses, clicks and whistles that form a full language that dolphins understand and respond to. Their study, published in Physics and Mathematics, describes how the language “exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, [which] indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins… [T]heir language can be ostensibly considered a highly developed spoken language, akin to the human language.”
Dolphins Recognize Themselves in Mirrors
Usually, when an animal looks into the mirror they either ignore what they see, or think the reflection is another animal, and act aggressively. Not so with dolphins, who have been found to recognize that it is not another animal, but rather their own reflection. In one study, researchers at the New York Aquarium installed mirrors in the tank of a pair of bottlenose dolphins, marking each with temporary ink, which the dolphin then stared at in the mirror.
Dolphins Listen With Their Jawbones
Scientists believe that sound is carried from the water to the dolphins’ inner ear by way of its lower jawbone. The jaw is hollow (unlike land-dwelling mammals) and contains a fatty substance that connects up to the ear. In studies, when a dolphin’s lower jaw is covered, it has trouble distinguishing sounds, while covering its ears makes no impact on its ability to hear.
Dolphins Can Live as Long as Humans
These animals are not just wise, they can grow old, too. At least that’s the case with the orca whale (which, yes, is a species of dolphin, not a whale). While the average killer whale lives to about 50, it’s not uncommon for them to get to 70 or 80 years old. In 2014, a 103-year-old Orca named Granny was spotted off the west coast of Canada.
Every Year, Dolphin Teeth Grow a New Layer
Speaking of dolphin ages, the teeth of these creatures grow a new layer every year, creating rings that tell how old each dolphin is, not unlike a tree.
Dolphins’ Eyes Move Independently
While humans’ eyes move the same direction, coordinating with each other, dolphins have much more leeway, with each eye located laterally on the sides of their heads and operating independently from one another. This means that they can get a far more expansive view of what’s happening around and even behind them as they swim through predator-filled water.
Dolphins Enjoy Intimacy
One of the few animals besides humans to enjoy intercourse, dolphins, according to one interview published in Science, have been known to practice foreplay and numerous positions when copulating. Okay, then! And for more mind-blowing trivia, don’t miss these 100 Random Facts That Will Make You the Most Interesting Person in the Room.
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