Dolphins produce a variety of clicks and whistles and then listen for echoes in order to navigate and explore their environment. Inspired by the natural sonar of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), scientists are developing underwater acoustic systems to solve problems that lie beyond the capabilities of existing technology.

Consider: The dolphin’s sonar allows it to find fish hiding in sand on the seabed and to distinguish between a fish and a rock. According to Keith Brown, an associate professor at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland, the dolphin can also “tell the difference between containers that hold fresh water, salt water, syrup, and oil from [a distance of] ten meters [32.8 ft].” Scientists would like to develop devices having some of the same abilities.

From a distance of ten meters, dolphins can tell containers apart by their contents

Researchers analyzed the dolphins’ vocalizations and hearing and attempted to replicate them. The result was a sonar device packed with sophisticated electronics and fitted into a cylinder less than one meter (3.3 ft) long. The device, which is attached to an underwater robotic vehicle that resembles a torpedo, was designed to inspect the seabed, find buried items such as cables or pipelines, and analyze them without making direct contact. Its developers foresee applications in the oil and gas industry. The dolphin-inspired sonar should enhance the range of data that can be collected by current sonar devices, helping technicians to place underwater equipment in the best location, detect any damage to it​—such as hairline cracks in oil-rig support legs​—and even find blockages in pipelines.

What do you think? Did the bottlenose dolphin’s sonar come about by evolution? Or was it designed?