How to Talk to Dolphins

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It’s clear that dolphins have a relatively sophisticated way of communicating between themselves. And studies have shown that they have an amazing ability to understand humans as well, even to the point of being able to comprehend the importance of syntax.

Dolphins may have a language of their own, but the physical differences between us and them have kept them from being able to talk back…until now.

Denise Herzing, a biologist with the Wild Dolphin Project, has developed a system of sounds, symbols and props that allow dolphins and humans to communicate simple concepts to each other.

Herzing told Wired that she was inspired to attempt the project when she noticed that wild dolphins would sometimes seek out interaction with humans on their own:

“We thought, ‘This is fascinating, let’s see if we can take it further.’ Many studies communicate with dolphins, especially in captivity, using fish as a reward. But it’s rare to ask dolphins to communicate with us.”

To allow dolphins and researchers to communicate, Herzing rigged up a large underwater keyboard. Since dolphins use whistles to communicate, each key had both a symbol and an associated pitch that would sound when pressed. Humans showed interested dolphins how the keyboard worked, pressing a key to receive a prop, usually a specific type of toy like a ball or a scarf. Dolphins could ask for the toys they wanted by either pressing the key or whistling the appropriate pitch.

Unlike most dolphin studies, this one focused on communicating with wild dolphins as opposed to dolphins in captivity. The captivity issue is one obstacle to continued efforts to communicate with dolphins and other cetaceans. Many people don’t believe it’s possible to keep these animals contented in captivity, or that it’s ethical to try.

Lori Marino, a biologist with Emory University, told Wired that the way the study is structured is significant in this regard, saying:

“This is an authentic way to approach this, she’s not imposing herself on them. She’s cultivated a relationship with these dolphins over a very long time and it’s entirely on their terms. I think this is the future of working with dolphins.”