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This Is How Dolphins ‘See’ Humans With Echolocation

A news study capture images of what dolphins ‘see’ underwater

(Jack Kassewitz)
smithsonian.com

Scientists may finally be able to 'see' through the ears of a dolphin.

A group of researchers recorded and analyzed the echolocation sounds used by a dolphin when it came face to face with a number of objects (including a human male), reconstructing a series of 2-D and 3-D images that show how dolphins 'see' objects underwater.

"When a dolphin scans an object with its high-frequency sound beam, each short click captures a still image, similar to a camera taking photographs," Jack Kassewitz of the Speak Dolphin research organization said in a statement.

But making these images much more difficult than printing a two-dimensional photo. Dolphins use echolocation to create an impression of the world around them. These pictures hold a wealth of three-dimensional information like depth, making it difficult to translate into flat images.

To make these shapshots, Kassewitz and his colleagues used specialized audio equipment to capture the signals. The team then used a device called a CymaScope to translate the clicks and squeaks a female dolphin named Amaya made while she explored several objects in her tank, Jennifer Viegas reports for Discovery News.

The objects Amaya investigated included a flowerpot, cube and the diver Jim McDonough. The CymaScope translated her sounds into both a 2-D image and a 3-D-printed model. The model demonstrates the almost-holographic information that dolphins get from echolocation, Devin Coldewey writes for NBC News.

"Seeing the 3-D print of a human being left us all speechless," Kassewitz said in a statement. "For the first time ever, we may be holding in our hands a glimpse into what cetaceans see with sound."

The CymaScope captured "what-the-dolphin-saw images" of not only objects' full silhouettes, but many more details than expected, Kassewitz said in a statement. The researchers could just make out the diver's weight belt in the fuzzy depictions.

There is still much to learn about the level of detail dolphins can decipher. The scientists are also eager to investigate if and how dolphins communicate with each other using this sono-pictorial language.

“The dolphin has had around fifty million years to evolve its echolocation sense, whereas marine biologists have studied the physiology of cetaceans for only around five decades, and I have worked with John Stuart Reid for barely five years,” Kassewitz said in a statement.

UPDATE: After the release of these images, there has been some doubt brewing in the scientific community about how these images were captured and processed and the idea of truly ‘seeing’ what a dolphin would see. It is important to note that the methods are not published in a peer-reviewed journal—the usual mechanism scientists use to vet each other’s research—so the study should be viewed as preliminary work. Even so, the idea of capturing the resolution at which a dolphin can discern is an intriguing idea, and the important conversations these captivating images started could hopefully inspire further research into dolphin intelligence.<o:p></o:p>

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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