A news story broke today concerning Moko the dolphin – a lone sociable dolphin residing off the coast of New Zealand – who purportedly helped escort two beached pygmy sperm whales to open waters. Here is a BBC article about the incident. And here is a BBC article stemming from this news-story where DCP researcher Justin Gregg is interviewed about inter-species communication.
Here is an interview with Malcolm Smith – the man who witnessed the incident – on CNN.
So did Moko really communicate with the whales and lead them to safety? It's hard to say. Dolphins and whales don't likely have a language that functions in the same way that we think of human language, so it's unlikely that Moko conveyed information like "hey you two, follow me out past this sandbar and I will lead you to open waters." Moko may have been able to communicate with them on some level however – it is likely that different species of cetaceans do share communication signals to some extent. In fact, DCP Director Dr. Kathleen Dudzinski recently gave a presentation at the EAAM conference on Sunday, March 9th in Sweden concerning two species of dolphins (Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and Atlantic spotted dolphins) that seem to share common behaviors associated with flipper rubbing – a means of tactile communication common among many dolphin species. Moko's communication with the pygmy sperm whales in this news story was not likely to have occurred on a complex, semantic-rich level, but if the account of the events in question is indeed true, then the whales did seem to respond to Moko on some level. There are many stories of dolphins coming to the aid of dolphins, humans and other animals that are in distress – helping to prop them up in the water, etc. Of course the whales may not have had the slightest idea what Moko was all about, but simply followed her as she swam out to sea by the sheer coincidence of her being there. With an anecdote like this, it is impossible to say what the cause of the behavior in question was.
Learn more about dolphin communication and what scientists think about dolphin language at this link .
Discuss the incident on the DCP Forum here .
If you are a news outlet and would like to discuss this incident further, please contact DCP via our website .