Dolphins recognize their friends by tasting each other's pee : Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! Comedian Maeve Higgins and Emma learn why you never want to be recognized by a dolphin and find out where the magic happens.

Dolphins recognize their friends by tasting each other's pee

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Hey, guys, I'm Emma Choi, and welcome to EVERYONE & THEIR MOM, a weekly show from Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! This week we're talking about something cute and gross with Wait Wait panelist, comedian and woman whose biggest fan is my mom. It's Maeve Higgins. Hi, Maeve.


CHOI: My mom loves you.

HIGGINS: Well, I'm glad that she likes me.

CHOI: Yeah. Big news - researchers discovered a gross new way that dolphins tell each other apart, tasting each other's urine.



CHOI: Recent studies found that dolphins are more, quote-unquote, "interested" in the urine of dolphins they know.

HIGGINS: Oh, my God.

CHOI: Yeah. Yeah, that's how I felt, too. And according to The Huffington Post, who reported on it, quote, "When one dolphin peed or pooped, the others would swim through the excretions with their mouths open to get a big taste of their friend." And coincidentally, Taste of your Friend is the name of EVERYONE & THEIR MOM's new perfume line, Maeve. So that's exciting.

HIGGINS: I didn't realize that you were doing merch - that's really exciting - and that you're doing merch to appeal to every sense.

CHOI: Absolutely. You know, a lot of animals recognize each other by their urine - right? - like, dogs and cats and - I don't know - iguanas.

HIGGINS: Yeah, that's what I was thinking.

CHOI: Yeah. And according to National Geographic, like, this study is the strongest evidence that animals of the same species identify each other by taste.

HIGGINS: Oh, they can actually taste it.

CHOI: Yeah. So that's why they swim through it with their mouths open.

HIGGINS: 'Cause they can't smell.

CHOI: Yeah. That's why.

HIGGINS: If they come above the water, like, they're able to smell - right? - but just not underwater.

CHOI: I don't know.

HIGGINS: I think.

CHOI: I don't know if they can - I don't know if they have nostrils, you know?

HIGGINS: Yeah, I mean, they do, but I don't know if they can - 'cause when I picture a dolphin, I think I can see, like, a nose. I think I've seen a dolphin before with a nose ring, actually - like, a younger, kind of a cooler dolphin.

CHOI: A cool one. And did it have a lower back tattoo of another dolphin?

HIGGINS: Yeah (laughter).

CHOI: That's lit. That's awesome.

HIGGINS: They have a lower back tattoo of a white lady (ph).


CHOI: Maeve, this is such a weird story. I feel like we have to talk to someone who, like, really knows what's going on.

HIGGINS: Yeah, yeah.


CHOI: What's up, Jason? How's Bermuda?

JASON BRUCK: Bermuda's fantastic.

CHOI: Would you mind introducing yourself for us?

BRUCK: Sure. My name is Dr. Jason Bruck, and I am an assistant professor of biology at Stephen F. Austin State University.

CHOI: I love it. And you led this study on how dolphins recognize each other by teasing each other's pee, right?

BRUCK: That is true. I did do that.

CHOI: We love this study. Can you - could you just start by explaining us and, like, walking us through this study 'cause we are very fixated on how gross it is?

BRUCK: OK. What we were initially working on is the concept of the dolphin's signature whistle. So every dolphin basically comes up with a whistle that they give most frequently when they separate from their groups. That's how they find each other 'cause sometimes it's hard to see underwater, right? And so we wanted to figure out, are they really like names the way we have names? And this would be the first evidence of a dolphin or another any animal, not human, using essentially a noun. And that's a big deal.

CHOI: Yeah.

BRUCK: So the way that you do this in animals is that you set up what's called a crossmodal study. And that's just a really fancy way of saying, I need to test the signature whistle against some other sense. And there were scientists who posted about dolphins in the wild kind of swimming with their mouths open through excretia (ph) plumes, which is a nice way of saying pee and poop.

CHOI: Sure.

BRUCK: And so we looked at the possibility of them being able to identify each other kind of the way your dog identifies the other dogs in the neighborhood, by sniffing the fire hydrant, except not sniffing - tasting. And we worked with a dolphin here in Bermuda, and we kind of let them know that urine would be coming out of our little kind of experimental apparatus, which was basically a fancy way of saying a long pole with a little cup at the end with the pee in it.

CHOI: Right.

BRUCK: And we'd walk down the dock, and we'd kind of pour that into the water, and we'd watch him just open his mouth and his tongue hanging out, and he just swims right through it. And then he'd line up again to do it again and again and again. And this was something he wanted to do a lot.

CHOI: So you knew they had each individual whistles or you suspected it, but you needed to see if those names were actually how they identified each other. So you went to pee to, like, check that.

BRUCK: Right. And so we wanted to know, hey, not only do you recognize the sound, but you recognize who owns that sound. And that told us that not only do they remember the whistle, but they remember the whistler as well.

CHOI: That's so cool. Are you fluent in dolphin at this point?

BRUCK: OK, so that is - there are things that I can hear that I will know exactly which dolphin that is. So there are signature whistles that I know, like, in my head that if I hear it, I'll know exactly which dolphin is whistling. If I have the hydrophone in the water, I can almost describe what's happening without actually seeing what's happening. So sometimes if I hear (imitating dolphin), that's called a dolphin burst pulse, and that means there's a fight about to break out.

CHOI: Oh. Have you ever heard a dolphin talk to another dolphin about another dolphin behind their back?


BRUCK: OK. So that's the next step in this research. Now that we know that signature whistles really do work like names, we now have to go through all of our old data and interpret when we saw things like a third dolphin reference.


BRUCK: So there are times where we would do playback experiments, and we would see dolphins whistle the signature whistles of other dolphins that weren't in the pool. So...

CHOI: Oh, my God. Tea.

BRUCK: Yeah.

CHOI: Do you know how to say goodbye in dolphin?

BRUCK: Well, generally speaking, I don't think dolphins say goodbye.


BRUCK: I think they kind of go off to another social group. And there's always - the odds are they'll bump into each other again. I don't think they have a goodbye.

CHOI: I love that.

BRUCK: I think there's always the optimism they'll see each other again.

CHOI: It sounds like we have to rename the Irish goodbye as the dolphin goodbye.

BRUCK: Yeah. There is no goodbye in dolphin.

CHOI: Perfect.

Well, this is a fun fact, Maeve. Wait Wait... tried to do this story twice, but it was too disgusting to go on the main air, you know?

HIGGINS: I think...


HIGGINS: But you were like, I'll take it. That's perfect for my demographic.

CHOI: Yeah. I mean, maybe we have a lot to learn from these dolphins, you know? Like, maybe we should start tasting each other's pee to get to know each other. Maybe we should click and echolocate.

HIGGINS: In this, like - in this - I think you can tell when people are sick by tasting their urine. I don't think it's like - I think it's an old, old - like, when witches were, like, working as healers and stuff. I think they can tell by tasting their pee. Literally, this is something I saw on "Outlander," which is a TV show that is, like, a time travel TV show.

CHOI: Yeah.

HIGGINS: So, you know, it's not like, oh, well, when I was in university studying medicine - this is from a TV show half-remembered. But I think in the olden days, people used to taste each other's pee - or healers would - and they'd be like, oh, I know what's wrong with you. You know, you have - I don't really know what they could tell, but I think they'd be like, you have an attitude problem.

CHOI: Yeah.

HIGGINS: Or they're like, no - they're like, you have, like, something - your heart - there's, like, something wrong with your kidneys or your heart or something.

CHOI: Yeah.

HIGGINS: But also in the olden days, they couldn't really do anything to help.

CHOI: Yeah. They're just like, you're to die. Sorry.


CHOI: Yeah.

HIGGINS: The reason that you feel so terrible is because you're going to die, and now you've seen me tasting your pee as well. So good luck with everything.

CHOI: Yeah. I took a class on witchcraft and magic last semester because I go to a liberal arts school.


CHOI: And, like, it's crazy to think that, like, things that grossed people - things that gross people out now were just, like - no one was grossed out by it back in, like, you know, the Renaissance era, you know?

HIGGINS: Oh, yeah.

CHOI: Like, we're so grossed out by, like, mud and rats. But back then, it's like...


CHOI: Rats were their best friends, and mud was, like, their favorite substance. It's crazy how far we've come.

HIGGINS: Yeah. I think you're so right. And people used to hate to shower and stuff too, didn't they?

CHOI: Yeah. We really reversed.

HIGGINS: Like, they thought, like, bathing was, like, kind of dangerous or something.

CHOI: Yeah.


CHOI: Who better to ask about the olden days than my professor?

ARIANNE SEDEF URUS: My name is Arianne Sedef Urus. I am a historian of early America, and I taught Emma last semester in a class on witchcraft and magic in the Atlantic world.

CHOI: Yeah. You were my professor...


CHOI: ...Which was an awesome class - loved it. And, you know, just throwing this out there, would you say I'm your favorite student of all time?

URUS: I mean, you're up there. You're up there. You're my...

CHOI: Nice.


URUS: Definitely my funniest student of all time, so (laughter).

CHOI: Nice. OK, that's better than anything else for me. I'm going to take that. Well - OK. Go with me here. I was talking to a friend, and we're wondering, did witches/healers in the early modern period - the olden days, the 17th century, whatever - taste pee to diagnose people?

URUS: I think they did. They - there is a story about, like, you can taste pee to tell if somebody had diabetes. If the pee tasted sweet, then that was one way of knowing that the person had diabetes.

CHOI: Wow.

URUS: Yeah.

CHOI: Well, let me back up a little bit because I didn't contextualize. So this week we're talking about this study - these scientists found out that dolphins, like, swim through each other's urine and, like, taste it to recognize each other. And for some reason, it just, like, made me think of our class because I know we talked a lot about, like, bodily fluids in witchcraft, right?

URUS: Yeah. So, like, this isn't an example of, like, diagnosing somebody, but it does have to do with sort of healing or causing illness. There are these things - I don't know if you remember when we talked about witch bottles.

CHOI: Yes. Yeah.

URUS: There would be these jars, and people would fill it with various things - so pins, nails, fishhooks, tacks, fingernails, human hair, human teeth, blood and urine. And, like, depending on what you wanted to accomplish, it would sort of influence what specific things you put in the jar, and then you would bury it in the ground. And the idea was that if you were sick because of a curse that a witch put upon you, by burying this jar filled with, like, human excrement and other things upside down in the ground, you would sort of push the curse and the illness back onto the witch. It's pretty, pretty interesting.

CHOI: Yeah. It's pretty gross. And now I'm wondering, does this mean that dolphins are practicing witchcraft, you know, by, like, using each other's bodily fluids?

URUS: (Laughter).

CHOI: Yeah. It seems like back in, like, the early modern age, like, they had a much higher threshold for, like, super gross stuff.

URUS: Yeah. I mean, I think it's like, if you think about it, they couldn't bathe as often as we do. They didn't have, like - I don't know - the kinds of, like, soaps and shampoos and whatever else we use, and they were, like, living - most people were living in greater proximity to nature - like, close to their animals and their livestock, and so things just got kind of gross. And I imagine how much it must have smelled. That's something I think about quite often.

CHOI: Yeah (laughter). Yeah. So many - like a potion of smells and disgusting things.

URUS: Yeah.

CHOI: Yeah.

URUS: Yeah. I mean, they just - like, think about it. Like, they - you had to work all the time. You didn't have showers. You didn't have air conditioning. Imagine in the summer - like, working in the sun all day on a farm, like, filled with horse manure, getting sweaty, planting things.

CHOI: (Laughter) Yeah.

If you don't mind, we have a game that we want to play with you. Is that OK?

URUS: Yeah, absolutely. Let's do it.

CHOI: OK, great. OK, so we have a game we are calling, How Magic Is It?

URUS: (Laughter).

CHOI: So you're kind of an expert on magic, so we're going to give you something magical. And on a Yelp review scale of 1 to 5 stars, tell us how magic it really is, OK?

URUS: Five stars, most magic?

CHOI: Mmm hmm, yeah.


CHOI: First one - Magic: The Gathering - how magic is it?

URUS: Three. Three stars.

CHOI: Three stars? OK.

"Harry Potter" - how magic is it?

URUS: I like "Harry Potter."

CHOI: Me too.

URUS: Five stars.

CHOI: Five stars?

URUS: Yeah.

CHOI: How about a Ouija board? How magic is that?

URUS: Two stars 'cause I don't get it.

CHOI: Me neither. I just - yeah.

URUS: I used to have a Ouija board, and, like, nothing ever happened unless I did it myself.

CHOI: Two stars. OK, that's generous.

Magic Johnson - how magic is he?

URUS: Very, very magic - five stars.


CHOI: Five stars.

URUS: Five stars - 10 stars if I could (laughter).

CHOI: Yes.

Saying Bloody Mary three times into a mirror, trying to get her to appear. How magic is it?

URUS: That's pretty magic. Charms...

CHOI: Yeah, dedications.

URUS: ...Saying things, wanting things to happen - five stars. Five stars.

CHOI: Nice.

URUS: (Laughter).

CHOI: How about the trick when you make a quarter appear behind someone's ear - how magic is it?

URUS: One star.

CHOI: One star.

URUS: We all know you're hiding it in your hands. Where's the mystery?

CHOI: Yeah, Dad.

URUS: Yeah.

CHOI: Stop doing that trick to me.

URUS: I want some mystery. I want things I can't explain in my magic.

CHOI: Exactly - some David Blaine stuff, I guess.

URUS: Yeah.


CHOI: Lucky Charms being magically delicious - how magic is it?

URUS: I really like Lucky Charms, so I'm going to say five stars.

CHOI: Five stars.

URUS: Five stars. That is a good cereal. And how often do you get to eat marshmallows for breakfast?

CHOI: Exactly. Well, whenever you buy the cereal, which is great.

URUS: (Laughter).

CHOI: OK, last one. Just, like, dolphins in general - they're such weird freaks. How magic are they?

URUS: Dolphins are big-time magic. Dolphins are off the charts - like, 10 star...

CHOI: Ten stars.

URUS: ...Greater than Magic Johnson.

CHOI: Oh. Oh, dolphins - 10,000 stars.

URUS: Ten thousand stars to the dolphins.

CHOI: Well, awesome.

URUS: Yeah.

CHOI: Thank you so much for coming on our show. This was so fun.

URUS: Yeah.


CHOI: Let me ask you this. So you know when you see someone and you don't totally recognize them? They, like, recognize you, but you don't remember...


CHOI: ...Their name, you know? Like, I feel like there has to be a better solution than tasting their pee.

HIGGINS: Oh, so you want to help the dolphins out by giving them a more, like, socially acceptable way of figuring out who's who?

CHOI: Yeah. Or humans, too - like, how do you deal with that situation?

HIGGINS: Oh. Oh, that's such a good question. I mean, I think - OK, so one thing, and this is, like, a genuine no-joke thing. You should just always say, if you meet somebody, nice to see you, 'cause that means...

CHOI: Yes.

HIGGINS: If you've met them before, it's good, 'cause then it's so, like - it really throws everyone involved when you say, like, nice to meet you, and they're like, I met you before. Then, like, you feel bad, they feel bad. So a good thing to say is nice to see you.


CHOI: In that tone and cadence?

HIGGINS: Of course.

CHOI: Yeah.


CHOI: Here's my favorite part of the podcast - the credits. This show was brought to you by Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! This episode was produced by Hayley Fager, Zola Ray and Nancy Saechao, with help from Lillian King, Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis and Boba Fett. Our supervising producer is Jennifer Mills, and our malevolent overlord is Mike Danforth. Once again, Lorna White, thank you for helping us with our sound. And thanks to my professor, Dr. Arianne Sedef Urus, for being cool about it when I turned my final in a day late.

URUS: I always admired your fashion sense in class.

CHOI: Dr. Jason Bruck, thank you for making us love dolphins even more than before.

BRUCK: Kind of the queen of the dolphin group.

CHOI: You can follow Jason @bruck_lab on Instagram. Thank you to my co-host, comedian and Wait Wait panelist and future "Amazing Race" partner, Maeve Higgins.

HIGGINS: I'm going to make your life hell.

CHOI: Make sure you check out her book, "Tell Everyone On This Train I Love Them," which is dope as hell. I'm Emma Choi, and you can find me @waitwaitnpr and making prolonged eye contact with the pigeon across the alleyway, trying to establish an interspecies friendship.


CHOI: OK, I'm done. This is NPR.

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