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First question so apologies in advance if I get any procedure wrong.

I am worldbuilding for a story set on an ocean world very similar to earth's oceans (potentially with shallower average seafloor) and populated by delphinid, or more generally cetacean, advanced civilizations. However as we all know, you can't get very far into building civilization if you can't grasp the tools with which to build it, so... what ideas can you all generate that would best suit such creatures?

I have so far pondered that their best bet would be softer, movable, prehensile rostra. Except rather than wrapping their 'trunk' around an object to grasp and manipulate they would instead use their teeth to grip it. However having one arm (that can admittedly bend any amount in any direction) seems like quite a handicap and may not develop into finer motor skills. I'm also unsure of the plausibility of the evolutionary possibility of an already developed part of their morphology adapting so significantly.

Of course they can't just have hands instead of fins, or any other gimmick glued onto a standard cetacean body, because even ignoring how impractical they would be, it would ruin the dolphin's maneuverability.

So what are your thoughts?

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    $\begingroup$ You underestimate the agility of dolphins. They are among the few species that can use tools, and among the even more select group of species that build tools. Ok, so the only tool they know how to build is a fleshlight. There are videos of male river dolphins beheading fish and then using the headless carcass to masturbate (not linking because besides NSFW it is f... disturbing). But still, that takes some fine motor coordination. I am quite sure that I wouldn't be able to do something similar on land without using my hands, and they do it underwater. $\endgroup$ Jan 10 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ "How Would Dolphins Look If They Evolved To Human Levels" may be helpful to you, FrankRebin. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Jan 10 at 4:03
  • $\begingroup$ I think you really want to have the precursors of dolphins, which looked a lot like seals, and who's arms worked a lot like flippers. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_cetaceans Have you read David Brin's Startide Rising? The dolphins there are genetically engineered, but still. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jan 10 at 4:16
  • $\begingroup$ I would be happy to give you an answer and even a sketch of some useful mandible configurations, but at that point, you would have to ask yourself, "is this really a dolphin anymore?" The answer (of what I have in mind) would be no, as it involves having parts that dolphins simply don't have any precedent for, but if you are looking for dolphin-like creatures with manipulators I would be happy to give you an answer. $\endgroup$
    – Redbud201
    Jan 10 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ Thankyou all very much for the comments and considerations, I will look into the resources you all provided! I was aware of dolphin tool use but not of how advanced (yet disturbing) it could be. @Redbud201 I suppose it would be more accurate to consider my fictional species as wanting to be as you said: very dolphin-like although not really dolphins. I would be very interested in your answer if you were to provide one! $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 10 at 14:22
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Okay, so I have played around with various designs and thought about the problem a bit.

First off, a disclaimer. These are NOT dolphins. Rather, they are dolphin-like creatures that could evolve on another planet. They couldn't originate from dolphins, because dolphins don't have the necessary requisite parts for these structures to evolve from. So what is shown below is merely an imagining of possible manipulator appendages that could exist on a dolphin like species.

What I reasoned was that having the forelimbs (or flippers) evolve to act as manipulators was a bit unlikely, as they are typically too far back and help in steering and movement, having to use them for object manipulation would be awkward and inhibit movement - a bit like trying to use your feet to carry something. So I decided that a mandible or mouth configuration would be most probable. Even pre-sentience, dexterous mouth parts would assist in catching prey and various other tasks.

There is some precedent for such mandibular manipulators. Take for instance, the pedipalps found in spiders and some arthopods, acting like a tiny set of legs or sometimes claw like appendages that help capture and guide food into the mouth, sometimes even tearing pieces off or holding things. There is also the mouth flaps of the manta ray and the tentacles of a cuttlefish. I took inspiration from some of these things, which I will show below.

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The mouth flaps of the manta ray, called cephalic lobes, are wing like, and streamlined, and help guide food into its mouth.

enter image description here

The cuttlefish shown here, like many cephalapods, has very dexterous tentacles which can be used in any direction, lengthen, contract and curl to grasp objects in it's environment. The cuttlefish moves both forwards and backwards. When moving forwards, the tentacles are often pressed into a cone-like "torpedo" shape for low drag.

enter image description here

This strange creature, called Anomalocaris, was one of the apex predators of the Cambrian period, long before dinosaurs. It had curled flexible appendages with needle like bristles facing inward to catch prey. I liked the configuration of frontal appendages because it seems like it would be useful to manipulate things in front and below the head where the eyes could see everything.

So finally, I would like to present my take on a tool using dolphin like species.

Some of the early versions that I tried to make that used a split jaw like a gulper eel or other bony jaw structure turned out quite... disturbing. Like the unholy lovechild of the predator and a xenomorph with the body of a barracuda. Seeing as you were looking for dolphinesque creatures, and not horrors of the deep, I switched my efforts to other designs.

The best of what I came up with were based in large part on the three animals shown above.

(Note: in my drawn designs, all except for one, in which I wasn't thinking about it, I tried to preserve the rounded head of the dolphin, as underwater echolocation seems to require a resonating chamber near the front of the head, which seems like an extremely useful feature.)

Also, I decided that having especially long reach was not as important, as wide swinging motions are not as useful or efficient underwater. Trying to use gravity and momentum for something like swinging a hammer just isn't very practical underwater. So manipulators don't have to be long, but having enough reach to carry a long item to either side of the head or below the body is a good idea. When underwater, the types of motions that would be most useful would be hooking raking or scraping motions, poking and jabbing motions, being able to grasp and pull towards the body or mouth as well as tear and pull an object apart, or to simply hold onto an object and hold it close along the body for carrying something without creating too much drag.

enter image description here

You can see the manta ray influence on the top one. It's one of the more aesthetically pleasing designs, I think. I first thought of having the manipulators be folding like a curled flipper or mitten. It is streamlined in the direction of the water flow though. As nice as it looks, The lobes leave a lot to be desired when it comes to fine motor manipulation.

Below it, you can see a design more inspired by anomalocaris, with the mandible manipulators in a closed, low-drag swimming configuration. It has a bit of a curl or hook that tucks under the jaw. Instead of soft jelly like muscles, you'd want something a bit firmer than the average cephalapod tentacles which would help brace itself against high speed water flowing over them while retaining their shape.

enter image description here

So this sketch shows a possible nautilus inspired design. It came out looking more "fishy" than I meant for it to. A nautilus is pictured below for reference; it is a bit like a cuttlefish but with a shell and a trapdoor-like "hat". My idea here was that soft tentacles, (assuming tentacles were desired,) would be a source of drag, especially for something as streamlined as a dolphin body. So in this design, the tentacles would be retractable and stored behind a closed "nosecone" of sorts. I'm not sure how much I like this design, but I thought I'd put it up here for variety.

enter image description here A nautilus, for reference.

** And my final design ** enter image description here

After some consideration, I returned to the second design after making some slight modifications. The manipulators are shown here in both retracted and extended positions. Having the eyes positioned so that they can both see somewhat forward for seeing what it's doing in front and sideways for keeping an eye out while not being obstructed by the manipulators was a bit of a tricky problem, but Having the eyes placed close to the outside slanted forwards a bit, with manipulators protruding under the eyes seemed an appropriate placement without resorting to eye stalks or anything too exotic. Whether you imagine these manipulators as more soft like tentacles or more rigid like the anomalocaris, I imagined that they could lie flat against a protruding beak like structure that would allow the manipulators to rest and fold in a streamlined position, without needing to use muscle strength to fight against the current. If the manipulators are soft, the hard beak makes for a good tool to do things the soft parts can't and vice-versa. It could also act as a "third hand" which could hold a piece of work while the more dexterous manipulators work on it. And the dolphin's characteristic head bulge has been preserved, giving it room for a resonating chamber allowing it to use echolocation, which would be an extremely useful ability.

enter image description here

Edit: Ok, so second final design, after looking at the comment by FrankRebin, I decided to rework the nautilus-dolphin design to be a bit more streamlined and blend with the body better. I figured I'd just tack it on the end here for good measure!

enter image description here

Just a rework of the final design without overhang on the tentacles and a bit more streamlined.

So those are the best of what I came up with. There are a few things I didn't put up here, namely the designs that used more bony protrusions and teeth as manipulators, mainly because they were decidedly un-dolphinlike, and kind of scary looking. They would make much better sharks or deep sea predators than dolphins. I hope you find this interesting and gives you some helpful ideas. I would appreciate any feedback or thoughts!

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  • $\begingroup$ Mate this is absolutely brilliant. I want to start by saying thankyou so, so much for the time and effort you put into this answer. You have hit the nail on the head, as they say, in regards to keeping your designs fundamentally dolphin-like and the use of front end manipulators due to the dependence on using the flippers for locomotion. In terms of design feedback I'd certainly agree that highly modified jaw structures tend to give of creepy AvP vibes or just look 'wrong' and that is a large part of why I struggled myself before resorting to posting this question. $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 11 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ I am currently torn between the nautilus style and your final revision of the anomalocaris concept. I feel like the final design looks more decidedly marine mammal although the trapdoor covered nest of tentacles has its appeal for how practical that would be later on in the civilisations development. Plus I think with a trapdoor jaw area that was seamlessly composed of dolphin flesh that matched its body (rather than a shell of some type) I don't think it would look too out of place. $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 11 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ Could you envision dimples or depressions that the final-design-dolphin might tuck its two manipulators against? So that they lay flat along the underside rather than curling down and backward like the soft version of anomalocaris hooks. I like the idea of a beak (or perhaps two vertically opposed rows of teeth as to look even more dolphin-like) and the uses you proposed it would serve. Finally I agree that the manta ray style would not be conducive to fine motor control even though it would look the prettiest. $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 11 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ As for the final dolphin, I might see the tentacles as being kind of concave shaped on the inside, so as to hug the beak/cone tightly in the middle in between the two. Being mostly muscle, they might be able to contract their length a bit so there's little to no overhang over the beak. Also, I made a reworked drawing of the nautilus dolphin per your description, so I think I'll just tack that on to the end of my post so you can look at it. $\endgroup$
    – Redbud201
    Jan 11 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ As an addendum, there might not be any overhang on the tentacles if they started back a bit further from the tip of the beak or if the beak protruded further. They might even have like suckers or little hooks which could be used to adhere to the beak more strongly and tightly for a sleeker profile. $\endgroup$
    – Redbud201
    Jan 11 at 23:55
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I'm pretty sure if you need hands, dolphins can evolve them. It turns out, all cetaceans actually have finger/foot bones in their flippers, since they evolved from terrestrial mammals. And since dolphins use their flippers as swimming aids, they already can move them to a certain degree.

Furthermore, mutations happen all the time; 1 per every 100,000 nucleotides. I wasn't able to find how many nucleotides dolphins have, but it's not unfeasible that a dolphin gains a mutation that makes its flippers better for grasping-perhaps to climb on rocks or mangrove trees to eat tidal pool animals or tree-dwelling animals? Better grasping ability, if it's somehow selected for, would result in flippers more like hands.

However, grasping is pretty awkward, almost useless, without reach, so then natural selection should cause these dolphins to gain longer flippers, more like arms. The resulting hands will be webbed, the arms will have fins running along the back, but these dolphins will have arms.

This is most likely to happen with an amphibious lifestyle, one where being able to manipulate objects is handy. However, dolphins have no reason to evolve this, since their rostrum already does plenty....unless the dolphins evolve the muscles and skeletal changes necessary to lift up the upper portion of their bodies first. This would allow them to better grab (and therefore eat) higher-up sources of food, like leaves or branches, which would involve omnivorism....I sense a rabbit hole developing.

Somehow, for this to work, these dolphins will need to supplement their diet with food on land, therefore forcing them to develop omnivorism; perhaps overfishing could force them to do that? Still, there's a lot of "what ifs" involved. That being said, I hope this helps.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thankyou for your time to put together this answer! I would agree that I could see them developing arms from the current structure of their flippers given the right conditions, although I think what I'm really after is very dolphin-like animals that have developed some sort of manipulators (not necessarily hands) on their face/head. Sorry if this breaches etiquette by 'moving the goalposts' as it were, that is not my intention. Thanks again! $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 10 at 14:32
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Erm...it might interest/disturb you to know that many species of dolphins have partially prehensile penises.

If they're going to evolve manipulators, chances are it will start with something that they can already sort of manipulate stuff with, to get the ball rolling so to speak.

Dolphin civilisation is going to be pretty squicky from a human perspective...

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  • $\begingroup$ I was not aware that they are partially prehensile, but now that I am I fully agree that would be their most likely avenue for adaptation as it is already a lot further along towards being a manipulator than anything else. However as I'm worldbuilding for a fictional story that I might one day want others to read, I am going to have to use the rule of not disturbing your audience (a lesser known cousin of the rule of cool), and on this occasion exclude their penises as part of a solution. $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 11 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ @FrankRebin Yep that was my thinking while I was writing it. 'This probably isn't the answer that you're hoping for...' ;) If that's the case, then I think the answer of going further back in time and having a dolphin-ancestor branch off at the point where they still had forelimbs would be best. Have dolphins be the equivalent of chimpanzees to your dolphin-people's humans... $\endgroup$ Jan 11 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, unless Redbud gets back to me with a great answer, I'm starting to think thats what I'll have to do. There is just something I don't like about slapping arms on a dolphin ancestor. It doesn't seem appropriately alien for an alien ocean world, I mean our own ocean is freaky enough. I feel like just having an ocean-based species + hands would be a little immersion breaking and not make a story stand out from all the other generic super implausible underwater city stories. For this same reason I think is why the classic mermaid does not interest me. $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 11 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @FrankRebin Aah you're not after actual dolphins? More a dolphin-like alien creature? In which case you could have tentacles if you like. A nose like a star-nosed mole, but with manipulator tentacles would be neat, the rest just being regular dolphin. Or even if it is the real world, have the dolphin ancestors be a little star-nosed mole-like and have the evolution go from there :) $\endgroup$ Jan 11 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ This is about the best answer I've received! Having tentacles works better than my initial idea of an elephant trunk while still remaining very close to what I'm looking for. Great idea and great comparison to star-nose moles, now its time to start researching their evolutionary path! $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 11 at 15:48
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Have you considered telekinesis and/or would it fit into your setting?

Cetaceans already use echolocation as an extra sense.

One could easily extrapolate some mechanism whereby they can psychically manipulate things with precision, for example using micro-currents.

No appendage required.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have thought about current manipulation, and high energy sonic manipulation as a later technology, but my setting does not permit any magic- or fictional science-based abilities. I think it might also be too far fetched that a species could develop a current manipulation adaptation that would allow it fine and gross motor control of objects instead of adapting physiological manipulators. That said I am the complete opposite of an expert on natural selection and would be interested in any plausible evolutionary scenarios you could come up with. $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 10 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ What about creating magnetic fields or static electrical fields? Some animals (including cetaceans) can detect magnetic fields, so it's not entirely implausible that they could evolve to create them as well. Both of these are problematic though because they would be unable to manipulate non-magnetic and electrical insulator objects respectively. The only other non-contact force I can think of off the top of my head is gravity, and that's a bit of a leap. $\endgroup$ Jan 10 at 21:41
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Trained octopuses

So, dolphins have the brains, but not the hands, while octopuses have the hands, but not the brains (at least, not to the same extent as dolphins), so this could be an ideal chance for some symbiotic mutualism.

The dolphins will provide the octopuses with food (sharing with the octopuses the scraps of their kills, larger and more nutritious prey than the octopuses could take on their own) and safety (the octopuses' natural predators will be wary of attacking them if they able to latch onto the dolphin for protection), and in exchange the octopuses perform various tasks for the dolphins based on the "commands" that the dolphins vocalise to them.

Scientists believe the raw intelligence of some octopods to be at about the same level as domestic dogs, so at a base level, you could look to some of the jobs that service animals are able to do for humans (many of which are impressively complex) as a starting point for what this relationship could lead to, but octopus intelligence is already naturally more orientated to spacial orientation and manipulation tasks than dogs, so it's possible the dolphins could get quite impressive results in training their octopuses to perform tasks like carving stone tools, weaving kelp into rope, etc. It's likely there'd be a limit to this system at some point, but I think all the basics of stone age technology could probably be achieved in this way.

Where there are problems with this are in octopus biology. They're quite short-lived, making long-term training difficult; they're not naturally social in the same way dogs are, which would make it difficult for a dolphin to establish itself as the "head of the pack"; and the way they reproduce (external fertilisation) makes it difficult for the dolphins to selectively breed the next generations for desired traits, but it's up to you if you want to handwave these problems away in your scenario.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi, thanks for your well considered answer! I am specifically looking for answers on how dolphins would evolve their own manipulators and what they might look like, not how they would train other creatures. However i do envisage that their civilisation would make heavy use of biotechnology and symbiosis, and you have helped me narrow down which species might fulfill the role of 'dogs' in the story. $\endgroup$
    – FrankRebin
    Jan 11 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ In an SF ttrpg that I'm thinking of starting soon, one of the factions that survived the fall of civilization were the swimmers, which included uplifted dolphins and octopuses. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Jan 11 at 20:12

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