Douglas Adams Was Right, Dolphins May Be Able To Do High-Level Math

By David Wharton | 9 years ago

Scientists have long known that dolphins were smarter than the average bear (just to throw out a completely arbitrary basis of comparison), but you might be surprised by some of the ways that intelligence presents itself. A new study suggests that the aquatic mammals may be capable of using nonlinear mathematics to assist with their echolocation hunting. And the best part? We owe this new discovery to the Discovery Channel.

According to MSNBC, it all started with an episode of the Discovery Channel’s Blue Planet. Tim Leighton, a professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at the University of Southampton, was watching the show when he noticed that the dolphins in the footage were blowing out small bubbles while they hunted their prey. This didn’t make any sense to him, because he knew that the bubbles would scatter the sonar pulses, hampering the dolphins’ ability to hunt. So how were the dolphins able to hunt amongst the bubbles? As Leighton explains:

These dolphins were either ‘blinding’ their most spectacular sensory apparatus when hunting — which would be odd, though they still have sight to reply on — or they have a sonar that can do what human sonar cannot…perhaps they have something amazing.

The researchers eventually worked out that the use of nonlinear mathematics would allow for the dolphins to process echolocation data in a way that manmade sonar can’t. The explanation in MSNBC’s story is complicated, and I’m not sure I entirely understand it, but it seems to come down to a two-step process that involves sending out sonar pulses of varying amplitudes. If dolphins really are doing these calculations, it would explain how they can both spot their prey in a bubbly environment, and then confirm that it isn’t a false reading caused by those bubbles. As the article puts it, “The process, in short, therefore first entails making the fish visible to sonar by addition. The fish is then made invisible by subtraction to confirm it is a true target.”

There will still need to be further research to prove that the dolphins are using nonlinear math to hunt; all this has proven is that it’s theoretically possible that they could be doing so. Moreover, if scientists can replicate the process artificially, it could improve madmade sonar by allowing it to better detect bugging devices or sea mines.

Douglas Adams, writer of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, famously claimed that dolphins were the second most intelligent inhabitants of the Earth: above humans and below mice. That may or may not be true, but we can now confirm at least one thing: dolphins may not be smarter than humans, but they’re sure as hell better at math than me.