We all know how smart dolphins can be, whether they’re learning tricks or being part of the Russian navy. But, can they actually talk to each other?
Dolphins have shown the ability to imitate various noises and whistles, and there has also been some research showing that they can — at least in captivity — be trained to acquire a vocabulary for up to 40 different objects.
Researcher Denise Herzing now says that she and her Bahamas-based team have succeeded in creating a prototype that can actually decode the communication between the mammals, writes Süddeutsche Zeitung.
The underwater computer that divers can strap to their waists is called, aptly, a CHAT (Cetacean Hearing And Telemetry).Two hydrophones (underwater microphones) record the sounds of passing dolphins and analyze them. The CHAT can also emit sound waves that imitates the dolphins. Herzing refers to this as interfacing with the animals.
Herzing’s team based their research by following a pod of Atlantic Spotted dolphins. Objects were given assigned noises outside a dolphin's normal repetoire of whistles, but easily mimicable, and as the toys were passed out, the CHAT computer emitted a specific noise for each object.
In a blog post, Herzing writes that she was in the water when she heard the word ‘sargassum’ in her headphones after it was translated from dolphin-speak to English thanks to their software. For those of us less familiar with the lexicon, it’s a type of seaweed that the researchers were giving to the dolphins who love to play with it. She believes that the dolphins heard the specific whistle assigned to the word and repeated it.
“This doesn’t mean that the dolphin knew what it was saying, though,” Herzing admits. “It could be that the animal was just imitating that particular sound without associating it with the seaweed.”
Whether dolphins really can talk remains a controversial issue among scientists, but what is certain is that Bottle-Nosed dolphins can whistle a sort-of name that they call each other underwater. And, since very little is otherwise known about these calls, here’s where Herzing’s work may presently be most useful: as a suitable base for clearing that question up with a higher degree of certainty.
Here’s a TED talk Herzing gave last year about communicating with dolphins:
Photo by: sheilapic76 via Flickr