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Talking With Dolphins: Research On The Edge Or A Dying Frontier?

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by Ysabel Yates

During this year’s TED conference in Long Beach, Calif., Denise Herzing, a researcher who has been studying dolphin communication in the Bahamas for 28 years, introduced a project whose goal is to develop technology that would enable a long-sought dream: two-way communication between humans and dolphins.

“What do we really know about dolphin intelligence?” Herzing, who studies Atlantic spotted and bottlenose species, asks at the beginning of her talk.

“We know that their brain-to-body ratio, which is a physical measure of intelligence, is second only to humans,” she continues. “Cognitively, they can understand artificially created languages, and they pass self-awareness tests in mirrors. And in some parts of the world they use tools, like sponges to hunt fish. But there’s one big question left: Do they have a language and, if so, what are they talking about?”

Developing the technology

Herzing believes that the animals’ communication system can be cracked like a code. In addition to listening in on wild dolphins and trying to interpret their communication signals, another way to crack this code, she says, “is to develop some technology, an interface to do two-way communication, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do in the Bahamas in real time.”

To create this interface, Herzing has teamed up with the contextual computing group at Georgia Tech. The result is an acoustic-based system called Cetacean Hearing And Telemetry (CHAT), which generates artificial dolphin whistles made by the researchers. The whistles are meant to correspond to different objects that wild dolphins, which are naturally inquisitive and social, like to play with when humans come to visit. These toys include scarves, rope and seaweed.

The researchers are hoping the dolphins will learn what the different whistles mean, and then use them to request certain toys from the divers.

“Now, how far can this kind of communication go?” Herzing asks. “CHAT is designed to empower the dolphins to request things from us. It’s designed to really be two-way. Now, will they learn to mimic the whistles’ functionality? We hope so, and we think so.”

The team’s next step is to keep working to decode dolphins’ natural sounds, while developing their library of artificial whistles to bridge the interspecies communication gap.

So long and thanks for all the fish

Justin Gregg is another dolphin expert with a different take on the field of dolphin communication and intelligence. His upcoming book, Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth, explores the complexities inherent in using the term “intelligent” to describe dolphins in particular, when, he argues, a number of animals display cognitive abilities on par with the marine mammals. The complications mount when deciphering the abilities of different kinds of dolphins, which includes more than 40 species that live in the world’s oceans and rivers.

Gregg has spent years conducting research with the Dolphin Communication Project, an organization whose goal is to understand the animals’ communication, social behavior and cognition. One of his projects focused on “echolocation eavesdropping,” the ability dolphins have to essentially “listen in” on each others’ sonar signals.

“It’s a hard concept for us to understand because it’s not within our frame of reference. The closest example is if we were walking side-by-side in the dark and I used a flashlight to shine a light on something, and we were both able to see it,” he says. “But that’s not even a complete example because what the dolphins are doing isn’t related to vision.”

While Gregg is excited about many things in the field of dolphin research, dolphins communicating with people isn’t one of them.

The father of ‘dolphinese’

Gregg traces the popular idea that dolphins might have a language to a man named John Lilly, a neuroscientist, physician and writer who first proposed it in the 1960s. He conducted a number of controversial experiments to try to coerce dolphins into “speaking,” including one in which he gave them LSD.

Although Lilly eventually fell from grace in the scientific community and lost his research funding from the federal government, his ideas about dolphin language, Gregg argues, continue to permeate mainstream beliefs.

“We know dolphins are pretty good at understanding communication systems,” Gregg says. “But they’re not good at producing the language. Dolphins never took to it.”

He says that, while dolphins can be taught to understand upwards of 60 symbols, it’s unlikely they will be able to respond to us.

“For the most part, I think the past 50 years have shown us that it is unlikely their communication system functions like human language with words and grammar,” he says. “But a lot of people hold out hope that they do have a language.”    

His opinion “is not that language and interspecies communication is the next frontier of dolphin research, but that it is a dying frontier that’s been around.”

So what does he see as being the biggest problems dolphin researchers need to address?

“I think the biggest questions at the moment are why do dolphins have such large brains and complex social systems that are so similar to what we see in primates, yet live in environments so unlike primates,” he says. “They have complex social systems, but why is that necessary for them? Is it all about finding mates? Do they need to cooperate more than other mammalian species? It’s these social systems that need to be unraveled.”

Do dolphins want to CHAT?

Txchnologist reached out to Denise Herzing and the Georgia Tech scientists contributing to the interspecies communication project to get an update on their CHAT program. Neither the contextual computing group nor Herzing said they were ready to offer information because this year’s research season hasn’t finished yet.

However, Herzing shared her thoughts on their research goals and the criticisms she has heard so far.

“In the past 20 years there have been a few very productive two-way interspecific interfaces used with a variety of species, including bonobos, parrots and dolphins,” she says in an email interview.

“In captivity and in experimental studies, nonhuman animals do a pretty good job understanding humans and artificially created languages. We just have not put much energy into providing a two-way system for nonhuman species,” she explains. “With today’s technology, and our growing knowledge of nonhuman communication signals and cognitive abilities, a deeper exploration of communication becomes possible.”

And what about the claim her line of research follows the unsuccessful work of John Lilly?

“Lilly made claims that were not substantiated by any scientific evidence,” she says. “However that was over 40 years ago. Now, in 2013, we know more about dolphin communication signals and we understand some of the complexity of their lives and social relationships.” 

"Using the ‘Lilly’ argument in this day and age for not exploring nonhuman cognition and communication," she says, "is like using the Apollo 13 lunar mission disaster as an example of why we shouldn’t go back into space.”

Top image: Bottlenose dolphins via Shutterstock

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