Aristotle's Observations About Dolphins

BELIEFS ABOUT DOLPHINS ARE RECORDED STARTING WITH Aristotle. In his work, Historia Animalium (The History of Animals), Aristotle makes many pertinent observations about dolphins, including the fact that they bear their young alive, suckle them, breathe air, and communicate by underwater sounds.

Aristotle made a rather startling statement about dolphins:

"The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with the consonants."

This observation had been scorned by nineteenth-century biologists investigating dolphins as biological objects in the sea. These nonparticipant objective observers, who had not experienced the living dolphins at first hand, called this mythology.

On the face of it, Aristotle's statement is rather startling. First of all, dolphins communicate with one another with underwater sounds; but then Aristotle mentions, "the voice of the dolphin in air." Until new observations were made in 1956 and 1957, this statement remained a puzzle. Someone at the time of Aristotle must have heard the voice of the dolphin in air or Aristotle would not have mentioned it. He did not specify the conditions under which this voice was heard in air, nor how the voicing sounds were produced by the dolphins.

John as Aristotle

During the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century biologists said that the whales and dolphins had no vocal chords and therefore had no voicing. The underwater sounds and their sonic emitter apparatus had not yet been investigated.

From Aristotle's writings we know that there were dolphins in the Mediterranean and porpoises in the Black Sea. We can hypothesize that Aristotle, or his contemporaries, experienced dolphins in shallow water pools close to man, in the light of our later knowledge of dolphins, derived from our experiments in the fifties. Modern dolphins under similar circumstances start emitting sounds in air when they are exposed to humans speaking in air. There is no reason to suppose that the ancient dolphins of the Mediterranean did not act as the modern dolphins do.

An extensive search of the written literature, both scientific and literary, since the time of Aristotle, shows no further experience with dolphins' sounds in air as described by Aristotle. Up to 1955 there were only denials of the validity of Aristotle's observations by those who had no opportunity to be close to dolphins in shallow water. Aristotle states further that "small boys and dolphins develop mutual passionate attachments." He told stories of dolphins giving young boys rides, pulling them through the water. He also told of a dolphin beaching itself and dying from grief when a friendly boy left. It was not until the twentieth century that similar episodes are recounted.