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.
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?