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The Dolphin in History

The Dolphin in History
Title: The Dolphin in History
Release Date: 2019-02-22
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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The Dolphin in History

The Dionysos Cup by Exekias, c. 540 B.C.
Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich. Photograph by Dr. Max Hirmer.

The Dolphin
in History

Papers delivered by Ashley Montagu
and John C. Lilly at a symposium
at the Clark Library, 13 October 1962

University of California, Los Angeles



Recently the dolphin has become the focus ofmuch scientific interest and investigation which have led toflattering pronouncements about its remarkable intelligence,amiability, and astonishing friendliness towards man. It was inconsequence of such activities that a symposium was held at theWilliam Andrews Clark Memorial Library to consider the backgroundto contemporary studies of the dolphin. The presentationsof Dr. Ashley Montagu and Dr. John C. Lilly were receivedso favorably that it was decided to make them morewidely available in the present form.

As will be readily apparent to any reader, Dr. Montagu hasdemonstrated conclusively that had the writings of the ancientsbeen heeded we should long since have paid proper respect tothis intelligent mammal, and Dr. Lilly has reinforced suchclassical appreciation by an account of his own astonishing observationsof dolphin behavior. It is to be hoped that these twoaccounts will contribute to a lasting appreciation of our remarkableaquatic friend.

C.D. O’Malley





by Ashley Montagu

The friendly Dolphin, while within the maine,

At libertie delightes, to sport and play,

Himselfe is fresh, and doth no whit retaine

The brinish saltnes of the boundless Sea

Wherein he lives. Such is the secret skill

Of Nature working, all thinges at her will.

Henry Peacham, Minerva Britanna, 1612


The History of the Dolphin


I have met with a story, which, although authenticatedby undoubted evidence, looks very like a fable.Pliny the Younger

The history of the dolphin is one of the most fascinatingand instructive in the historiography and the history ofideas in the western world. Indeed, it provides one of the mostilluminating examples of what has probably occurred manytimes in human culture—a virtually complete loss of knowledge,at least in most segments of the culture, of what was formerlywell understood by generations of men. “Not in entire forgetfulness”in some regions of the world, but certainly in “a sleepand a forgetting” in the most sophisticated centers of the westernworld.

Dolphins are mammals. They belong in the order Cetacea,suborder Odontoceti, family Delphinidae. Within the Delphinidaethere are some twenty-two genera and about fifty-fivespecies. The count includes the Killer Whale, the False KillerWhale, the White Whale, and the Pilot Whale, all of which aretrue dolphins. There are two subfamilies, the Delphinapterinae,consisting of the two genera Monodon monocerus, the Narwhal,and Delphinapterus leucas, the White Whale or Beluga. Thesetwo genera are distinguished by the fact that none of the neckvertebrae are fused, whereas in all remaining genera, embracedin the subfamily Delphininae, at least the first and second neckvertebrae are fused.


It was Aristotle in his History of Animals (521b) who firstclassified whales, porpoises, and dolphins as Cetacea,τὰ κήτη οῖον δελφις καὶ φωκαὶνα καὶ φάλαινα.Aristotle’s account of theCetacea was astonishingly accurately written, and quite evidentlyfrom firsthand knowledge of these animals.

While most dolphins are inhabitants of the seas, there aresome that live in rivers, and quite a few that are denizens offresh-water rivers removed many miles from the sea. With oneexception the diet of dolphins is principally fish. The one exceptionis Sotalia teuszii, which lives in the Kamerun River, and isbelieved to feed exclusively on vegetable matter. The Ting Lingdolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) lives in Ting Ling Lake, six hundredmiles up the Yang-tse-Kiang. Another dolphin, the Susuor Ganges dolphin (Platanista gangetica) of Brahmapootra, theGanges, and the Indus, has lenseless eyes and is almost blind.The fresh-water dolphins belong in the family Platanistidae.

It is of interest to note that, in connection with the vegetablefeeding habits of the Kamerun dolphin, Lycophron, in his Alexandra,makes his dolphins feed on trees, and Ovid, in the Metamorphoses(III, 1, 202), describes a flood in which the dolphinstake possession of the woods. Nonnus Panopolitanus, in theDionysiaca (VI, 265-266), also describes dolphins as feeding ontrees.

The normal range of length of dolphins is from 5 to 14 feet;the larger species, the whales, are considerably longer. Brainweight is between 1600 and 1700 grams in the familiar dolphins,and reaches 9200 grams and more in the whales. The large brainis associated with what, all observers familiar with these animalsagree, is a quite considerable intelligence.

Here we must pause to make a plea for the proper usage ofcommon names. The term “porpoise” refers to the small, beaklessDelphinidae, which have a triangular dorsal fin and spade-shapedteeth. The name “dolphin” embraces all other membersof the family, except the larger forms, which are called whales.5The porpoises mostly belong in the genus Phocaena, the bestknown species of which, the Common Porpoise (Phocaena phocaena),never reaches a length exceeding 6 feet and weighs 100to 120 pounds. There are some six species. The finless black porpoiseconstitutes the only other genus with a single speciesNeomeris phocaenoides.

All porpoises are dolphins. The Bottle-Nosed Dolphin, Tursiopstruncatus, is sometimes called a porpoise. This is incorrect.Tursiops is a true dolphin, and should not be called what it is not.

Here we shall be principally concerned with the Bottle-NosedDolphin and with the Common Dolphin. The Bottle-NosedDolphin has a short, well-defined snout two or three inches long,and is characterized by a prominent fin in the middle of theback. Coloration is dark above and light below. Gestation lastssome ten months, birth is monotocous, and the young aresuckled for about 18 months. The tail is delivered first, and theinfant, about three feet long and weighing about twenty-fivepounds, is immediately quite active, though much in need of thecare of its devoted mother. The infant will eventually grow to bebetween 11 and 12 feet in length, and weigh about 300 kilograms.Tursiops has an enormously wide range, being commonestalong the Atlantic coast of America, from Maine to Florida,and occurs in the Bay of Biscay, in the Mediterranean Sea, and asfar south as New Zealand.

The Common Dolphin, Delphinus delphis, is readily recognizedby its well-defined narrow beak and distinctive coloration.The beak is some 5 to 6 inches narrower and finer than in theBottle-Nosed Dolphin, and is sharply marked off by a deep V-shapedgroove from the low reclining forehead. The CommonDolphin reaches a length up to 8½ feet. Its range of distributionis very wide, for it may be met in any temperate or warm seathroughout the world, and occurs at times in vast schools.

Whether the dolphin of classical antiquity is Delphinus orTursiops is not usually determinable, although each undoubtedly6played its independent role in the stories told of dolphins.From the recorded evidence available to us it is clearthat, except for the larger species, the whales, all dolphins appearto be characterized by playfulness and friendliness towardman. There are, however, differences which appear to expressthemselves mostly in captivity. At least, Tursiops adjusts muchbetter to captivity than does Delphinus. At marine studiosTursiops has established itself as a highly intelligent, playful,and friendly performer. Delphinus, on the other hand, whilenaturally all these things, in captivity tends to be timid and notvery playful.

The Common and Bottle-Nosed Dolphins are those bestknown to the western world, but many of the traits which haverecently been rediscovered concerning these creatures have beenwell known to other peoples for millennia. It is only a certainsegment of the western world, its more sophisticated representation,and particularly the learned world, which dismissed asmyths the tales told about dolphins in classical antiquity. Andthis is the real burden of the story I have to tell you. Some ofthese antique tales may have been myths, but as we shall see,many of them were not, and undoubtedly a number of themyths were based on real events partially embroidered by theimagination and improved, like good wine, by time. But goodwine needs no bush, and I shall sample this wine as palatablyas I find it.

The earliest representation of a dolphin I have been able tofind is from a pictographic seal from Crete, estimated to datefrom 3500 to 2200 B.C. The earliest painting of a dolphin thusfar recovered is from the ancient Peloponnesian city of Tiryns.The date is about 1600 B.C. In that city it is also representedin stucco floors. Several good examples of dolphins are furnishedby seventh century Corinthian art. The dolphin is also well representedin Minoan art. In Cyprus it is frequently representedin Late Helladic vases, shards, amphorae, in metalwork, engravings,7and in stucco floors as at Tiryns. Among the importationsfrom Crete into Helladic art appear to have been certainstylized forms of the dolphin.

An early literary reference to the dolphin occurs in Aesop’sfable, “The Monkey and the Dolphin.” During a violent storma ship was capsized, and among those thrown into the water wasa monkey. Observing its distress a dolphin came to its rescue,and taking the monkey upon its back the dolphin headed forshore. Opposite Piraeus, the harbor of Athens, the dolphin inquiredof the monkey whether he was an Athenian. “Oh, yes,”replied the monkey, “and from one of the best families.” “Thenyou know Piraeus,” said the dolphin. “Very well, indeed,” saidthe monkey, “he is one of my most intimate friends.” Whereupon,outraged by so gross a deceit, the dolphin took a deep diveand left the monkey to its fate.

I take it that ever since that day monkeys have very sensiblyrefrained from speech. It is far better to remain silent even atthe risk of being taken for a fool or a rogue, than to open one’smouth and remove all doubt.

Aesop flourished about 600 B.C. His story suggests a considerableknowledge of the ways of dolphins, and this indicatesthat knowledge of the dolphin was already old in his time.

There are several variant Greek myths on the origin of thedolphin. All of them relate to Dionysos. In one version Dionysosis an adult, in another he is a child. The first group of legendsrepresent the epiphany of Dionysos, symbolizing the battle betweenwinter and summer. Winter is represented by the deathof Dionysos who disappears into the water, from which he isbrought back on the top of a dolphin as the returning springtime(Apollodorus, III, 5, 3). Another version has Dionysos, whetheras child or adult varies, being conveyed by ship to Naxos byTyrrhenian mariners. The latter conceive the idea of kidnapinghim. Dionysos senses their treachery, and bidding his companionsstrike up on their musical instruments, he produces a8Bacchic wild dance in the mariners who throw themselves overboardand are changed into dolphins.

The popular belief in antiquity in the human intelligence ofdolphins and their kindly feeling toward man was explainedby the ancient writers in the light of the transformation of theTyrrhenian pirates into dolphins. (See Lucian, Marine Dialogues,8; Oppian, Halieutica, I, 649-654, 1098, V, 422, 519f;Porphyry, De Abstinentia, III, 16.) As Oppian (I, 1089) in hisHalieutica has it, in William Diaper’s charming translation:

So Dolphins teem, whom subject Fish revere,

And show the smiling Seas their Infant-Heir.

All other Kinds, whom Parent-Seas confine,

Dolphins excell; that Race is all divine.

Dolphins were Men (Tradition hands the Tale)

Laborious Swains bred on the Tuscan Vale:

Transform’d by Bacchus, and by Neptune lov’d,

They all the Pleasures of the Deep improv’d.

When new-made Fish the God’s Command obey’d,

Plung’d in the Waves, and untry’d Fins displayed,

No further Change relenting Bacchus wrought,

Nor have the Dolphins all the Man forgot;

The conscious Soul retains her former Thought.

The god of the golden trident who rules over the seas, Poseidon,would not have prospered in his wooing of Amphitrite ifit had not been for the assistance of a dolphin, who apprizedPoseidon of her hiding-place. For this service, as is well-known,Poseidon set the dolphin among the stars in the constellationwhich bears its name to this day.

It is interesting in this connection that in a modern Greek folktalefrom Zacynthos, Poseidon changes a hero who has falleninto the sea into a dolphin until such time as he should find amaiden ready to be his wife. After some time the dolphin rescuesa shipwrecked king and his

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