It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that dolphins, given their playful nature and charm, converse with each other much like we do. But is this really the case? And if so, to what extent do their seemingly random calls indicate a natural penchant for language?
Dolphin researcher Denise Herzing has spent nearly three decades listening in on suchnoises in hopes of deciphering what she suspects is actual dolphin chatter. But it wasn’t until she tried to teach the dolphins calls for specific English words—and they responded—that she realized she may have hit on something big.
Since 1985, Herzing, with the Wild Dolphin Project, has used underwater video and sound equipment to study the natural communication system of an especially friendly pod of dolphins that lives along a stretch of the Bahamas near the southern tip of Florida, amassing a database that profiles their relationships, sounds and behavior, and how these things have changed over time.
The latest goal in that research has been to try to use the dolphins’ own signals to communicate with the animals. Last August, the team had a breakthrough. Researchers, during a test run of a wearable translation device, captured a unique whistle that they had taught the dolphins, and the device instantly translated it into English.
The word? “Sargassum,” a type of seaweed often used as a toy during divers’ interactions with the dolphins.
“We know that dolphins in captivity are fast [and] spontaneous and [also] excellent acoustic mimics, and that they can associate sounds with objects,” Herzing says. “Whether they do this in their ‘natural’ communication system we don’t know. But we knew that theyhave the cognitive flexibility as a species, so we thought we would create a tool to see what they would do with it.”
There’s no shortage of research on the way that dolphins interact. The animal labels and identifies others in its group with whistles. And in the 1970s, researchers found that Akeakamai, an especially bright bottlenose dolphin housed at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, could be taught, through a kind of sign language, to understand syntactic differences, or the manner in which re-shuffled arrangements of hand gestures can be used to convey a particular message.
But establishing two-way acoustic communication using alanguage’s key building blocks—that is, specific sounds that can be recognized, understood and expressed mutually—was something that had long been beyond the scope of dolphin reseachers.
Herzing wanted to at least try to break that barrier. She started in the late 1990s teaching the dolphins how to recognize and request objects, along with the name of three researchers, by pairing them with artificial sounds and symbols on a keyboard. Ultimately, the approach didn’t quite yield the kind of results she had hoped for.