Two dolphins swimming in the med… One says…

“Here, do you fancy going for something to eat in Venice?”

Other dolphin says…

“Fuck that! Full of humans, the waters poisonous and there’s no food to eat anyway”

“Have you not heard? The fucking idiots have gone and contracted some virus of the pangolins… They’re all too afraid to come out of the homes… C’mon let’s go check it out!”

“Fucking hell! I could get use to this.”


“The dolphin story wasn’t true Danny Boy”

“arghh… Dolphins do talk though!”

Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life

Bogus stories of wild animals flourishing in quarantined cities gives false hope—and viral fame.


As the normally bustling canals of Venice became deserted amid pandemic quarantines, viral social media posts claimed swans and dolphins were returning to the waters. It wasn’t true. The canal water, nonetheless, is clearer because of the decrease in boat activity.

Scattered amid a relentless barrage of news about COVID-19 case surges, quarantine orders, and medical supply shortages on Twitter this week, some happy stories softened the blows: Swans had returned to deserted Venetian canals. Dolphins too. And a group of elephants had sauntered through a village in Yunnan, China, gotten drunk off corn wine, and passed out in a tea garden.

These reports of wildlife triumphs in countries hard-hit by the novel coronavirus got hundreds of thousands of retweets. They went viral on Instagram and Tik Tok. They made news headlines. If there’s a silver lining of the pandemic, people said, this was it—animals were bouncing back, running free in a humanless world.

But it wasn’t real.

The swans in the viral posts regularly appear in the canals of Burano, a small island in the greater Venice metropolitan area, where the photos were taken. The “Venetian” dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away. No one has figured out where the drunken elephant photos came from, but a Chinese news report debunked the viral posts: While elephants did recently come through a village in Yunnan Province, China, their presence isn’t out of the norm, they aren’t the elephants in the viral photos, and they didn’t get drunk and pass out in a tea field.

The phenomenon highlights how quickly eye-popping, too-good-to-be-true rumors can spread in times of crisis. People are compelled to share posts that make them emotional. When we’re feeling stressed, joyous animal footage can be an irresistible salve. The spread of social phenomena is so powerful, 2016 research shows, that it can follow same models that trace the contagion of epidemics.

When untruths go viral

Kaveri Ganapathy Ahuja’s controversial tweet about the swans that “returned” to Venice canals has hit a million likes.

“Here’s an unexpected side effect of the pandemic,” her tweet reads. “The water flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever. The fish are visible, the swans returned.”

Ahuja, who lives in New Delhi, India, says she saw some photos on social media and decided to put them together in a tweet, unaware that the swans were already regulars in Burano before the coronavirus tore across Italy.

“The tweet was just about sharing something that brought me joy in these gloomy times,” she says. She never expected it to go viral, or to cause any harm. “I wish there was an edit option on Twitter just for moments like this,” Ahuja says.

Nonetheless, she hasn’t deleted the tweet and doesn’t plan to, arguing that it’s still relevant because waters in Venice are clearer than usual—a result of decreased boat activity—and that’s what matters, she says. She’s tweetedabout the “unprecedented” number of likes and retweets she’s received on the tweet. “It’s a personal record for me, and I would not like to delete it,” she says.

Swans are regular visitors to the canals of Burano.PHOTOGRAPH BY DANITA DELIMONT, ALAMY

The pull of posting

Paulo Ordoveza is a web developer and image verification expert who runs the Twitter account @picpedant, where he debunks fake viral posts—and calls out the fakers. He sees firsthand the “greed for virality” that may drive the impulse to propagate misinformation. It’s “overdosing on the euphoria that comes from seeing those like and retweet numbers rise into the thousands,” he says.

Getting a lot of likes and comments “gives us an immediate social reward,” says Erin Vogel, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. In other words, they make us feel good. Studies have found that posting to social media gives one’s self-esteem a temporary boost.

The need to seek out things that make us feel good may be exacerbated right now, as people try to come to grips with a pandemic, a collapsing economy, and sudden isolation. “In times when we’re all really lonely, it’s tempting to hold onto that feeling, especially if we’re posting something that gives people a lot of hope,” says Vogel. The idea that animals and nature could actually flourish during this crisis “could help give us a sense of meaning and purpose—that we went through this for a reason,” she says.

It was the running theme of many of the viral tweets. “Nature just hit the reset button on us,” read a tweet celebrating the dolphins supposedly swimming in Venetian canals.

“I think people really want to believe in the power of nature to recover,” says Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, in Ohio. “People hope that, no matter what we’ve done, nature is powerful enough to rise above it.” (Read about how this incredible—and real—shark photo went viral.)

About half of Americans say they’ve been exposed to made-up news or information related to coronavirus, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. While a fake happy news story about dolphins in a canal may not be all that problematic, relatively speaking, there can still be harm in spreading false hope in times of crisis.

These fake feel-good stories, Vogel says, can make people even more distrustful at a time when everyone already feels vulnerable. Finding out good news isn’t real “can be even more demoralizing than not hearing it at all.”

Spots of hope on social media are likely to play a key role in keeping spirits up in the weeks and months ahead, as people self-quarantine in their homes and connect with each other through screens. “I’d encourage people to share positive things,” says Vogel. “But it doesn’t have to be anything dramatic. It just has to be true.” 

A ‘Conversation’ Between Two Dolphins Has Been Recorded For First Time


For the first time, researchers have recorded two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins having a ‘conversation’ with each other, and their communication appears to be far more sophisticated than we thought.

While scientists have known for years that dolphins use a very complex language to communicate amongst themselves, the new findings suggest that they might be able to string together five-word sentences, and could even use a form of ‘grammar’ to influence meaning.

“Essentially, this exchange resembles a conversation between two people,” team leader Vyacheslav Ryabov, from the Karadag Nature Reserve in Feodosiya, Russia, told Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph.

“Each pulse that is produced by dolphins is different from another by its appearance in the time domain and by the set of spectral components in the frequency domain.”

The team discovered these speech patterns using a new type of waterproof microphone called a hydrophone. This allowed them to record two dolphins at the reserve – named Yasha and Yana – with a high level of detail.

After analysing these recordings, the team says they’ve found evidence that the dolphins were forming ‘words’, by emitting different pulses that varied in frequency, volume level, and spectrum, just like human language.

While it’s impossible to know at this stage what these words could mean, the team says the dolphins appeared to be forming sentences up to five words in length during their brief conversation.

There’s even evidence of grammatical structures in place too, which would allow for more complex sentences, but more evidence is needed to confirm this. 

What’s perhaps most fascinating about the interaction is that the dolphins appeared to be keenly interested in what the other had to say, and understood that they had to take turns vocalising to get their meaning across.

“The analysis of numerous pulses registered in our experiments showed that the dolphins took turns in producing [sentences], and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other’s pulses before producing its own,” Ryabov told The Telegraph.

“This language exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, this indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins, and their language can be ostensibly considered a highly developed spoken language, akin to the human language.”

Based on these findings, Ryabov says there’s enough evidence to suggest that dolphins do, indeed, have their very own language that we’re only just beginning to understand.

The next step – and it’s a big one – will be to figure out how to translate their ‘words’ into a human language.

“Humans must take the first step to establish relationships with the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet Earth by creating devices capable of overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of using languages and in the way of communications between dolphins and people,” Ryabov said.

Speech might not be the only thing humans and dolphins have in common. Back in 2011, researchers found that dolphins value friendships and close relatives just like we do.

And earlier this year, scientists from Italy found that dolphins (and whales) mourn their dead.

It’s going to take a whole lot more research to get us to a place where we can understand much of anything that dolphins are saying to each other, but being able to identity the key constituents of their speech patterns is a pretty great jumping-off point.

The findings were published in Physics and Mathematics.

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