Biologists and dolphins have created a new inter-species language

Illustration for article titled Biologists and dolphins have created a new inter-species language

Biologist Denise Herzing has been studying wild spotted dolphins for years in the Bahamas. Like many people who research dolphins, she's heard the animals communicating with each other but hasn't figured out how to understand what they're saying. And yet dolphins have learned our languages: Many studies have shown that dolphins can understand human vocabulary and syntax. The problem is that dolphins can't respond in kind: They simply aren't able to make the sounds required to speak our languages. Herzing wanted to change that. So she set out to construct a shared language with dolphins, using a synthesizer to create a vocabulary both species could pronounce. And it worked better than she'd ever hoped.

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Image by A Cotton Photo/Shutterstock

According to Wired:

Herzing created an open-ended framework for communication, using sounds, symbols and props to interact with the dolphins. The goal was to create a shared, primitive language that would allow dolphins and humans to ask for props, such as balls or scarves.

Divers demonstrated the system by pressing keys on a large submerged keyboard. Other humans would throw them the corresponding prop. In addition to being labeled with a symbol, each key was paired with a whistle that dolphins could mimic. A dolphin could ask for a toy either by pushing the key with her nose, or whistling . . . Herzing's team found that six dolphins, all young females, were interested in the game, and would come to play when the game was on . . .

So now Herzing and the dolphins are able to ask each other for specific objects. Our two species have a shared vocabulary. It's actually a little weird that nobody thought to do this with dolphins before, given that scientists have used sign language to hold conversations with chimps and gorillas.

Herzing says her study has implications for communicating with extraterrestrials. Far more intriguingly, it means that we are able to have two-way conversations with dolphins for the first time. Biologists just need to construct a more complicated human-dolphin language so that we can talk about things other than balls and scarves. What are the cetaceans going to tell us when we finally understand them?

Read more at Wired, or check out the full scientific article on Herzing's study at Acta Astronautica

DISCUSSION

woody-rockson
A Tank of Cuttlefish

Well this has been done before, and far more successfully with Bonobo Chimps. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has done research for years on two generation of Bonobo chimps, (a rare bread of chimpanzees who are much more timid and less aggressive than normal chimpanzees). She came to the same conclusion years ago about how animals couldn't speak our language even if they understood it due the inability to make the vocalizations humans make. So she developed a type of keyboard, with integrated syntax of which the second generation chimp known as Kanzi became skilled at using. He is able to create sentences and talk about objects he has never seen before. Most recently he has learned some sign language. There is a huge language debate in psychology about what really constitutes as language and I find it hard to believe the researchers working with these dolphins are unaware of the very controversial Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her ground breaking research thats light-years ahead.