Popular Culture

This Picture Shows How Dolphins Use Echolocation to “See with Sound”


The world’s first recorded image of what a dolphin sees underwater is here, and it’s astounding.

Dolphins and other mammals like bats use a form of communication and sight called echolocation, bouncing sound waves off objects to locate them, while also generating an image of the object off which the sound waves are bounced. Dolphin communication has long been a subject of study for scientists, especially in the US and the UK, and now, scientists have been able to render a 3D image of a submerged diver based entirely on one dolphin’s echolocation ability. The image is amazing.

This is how dolphins “see with sound”:


Here’s how they did it.

Jack Kassewitz of SpeakDolphin.com used an imaging system called Cymascope, developed by John Stuart Reid, which makes it possible to record and isolate the echolocation sounds dolphins make. It creates 2D images of the sounds, and then a computer program converts these 2D images into 3D.

“We’ve been working on dolphin communication for more than a decade,” wrote Kassewitz. “When we discovered that dolphins not exposed to the echolocation experiment could identify objects from recorded dolphin sounds with 92% accuracy, we began to look for a way for to see what was in those sounds.”

A dolphin named Amaya was an instrumental part of the experiment. She directed her sonar beams to a submerged diver, while a hydrophone recorded the echoes. Jim McDonough, the diver, was unable to use a breathing apparatus while swimming, because there were fears that the bubbles would warp the recording. While Amaya “scanned” the diver with her high-frequency beams, the Cymascope imprinted sonic vibrations.

The experiment was also conducted with Amaya “scanning” a flowerpot, a cube, and a plastic “+” symbol, but it’s the image of the diver that is truly breathtaking.

Kassewitz said of the experiment:

“We were thrilled by the first successful print of a cube by the brilliant team at 3D Systems. But seeing the 3D print of a human being left us all speechless. For the first time ever, we may be holding in our hands a glimpse into what cetaceans see with sound. Nearly every experiment is bringing us more images with more detail.”

Pretty extraordinary. These new developments will help scientists gain deeper insight into how underwater creatures use echolocation, and even if they are sharing their “sono-pictorial” language with other species.

Lisa Lo Paro
Lisa is a freelance writer and bibliophile living on the outskirts of New York City. She likes 2 a.m. with a good book, takes cream in her coffee and heavily filters her photos. Check out her blog The Most Happy, her Instagram, and Twitter.

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