Here’s how the world looks to dolphins using echolocation

Today in “science is really really really cool,” researchers have captured an image showing what the world looks like to dolphins when they use echolocation. That’s right: We are able to see how other animals use sound to see, and it’s majorly fascinating.

A team led by Jack Kassewitz, founder of, used an imaging system called a Cymascope.

“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,” Kassewitz said in a press release.

Developed by project member Jon Stuart Reid, the Cymascope makes it possible to record dolphin echolocation that is directed onto specific objects. Then, researchers can make 2D images of those sounds, and then those images are converted into 3D real-world models.

“We’ve been working on dolphin communication for more than a decade,” Kassewitz said in the press release. “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.”

In the researchers’ experiment, a dolphin named Amaya directed her echolocation sounds at submerged diver Jim McDonough, who swam without a breathing apparatus so no air bubbles would interfere with the experiment. As all this was happening, the Cymascope recorded the sonic vibrations. Here’s what it looked like:

This doesn’t exactly do the image justice, as the process of echolocation provides a dolphin with a 3D image rather than the 2D image we get when we’re looking at a scene in front of us. But the researchers also printed it on a 3D printer. The experiment was also conducted with Amaya directing her echolocation sounds at a flowerpot, a plastic ‘+’ symbol, and a cube.

“We were thrilled by the first successful print of a cube by the brilliant team at 3D Systems,” said Kassewitz in the press release. “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.”

The next goal for researchers: To find out if — and how — dolphins may be using these images to communicate as part of a “sono-pictorial” language.

This research is all so fascinating, and it highlights perhaps a universal truth: dolphins are *seriously* the coolest.

(Images via Twitter, Shutterstock.)