Scientists have struggled to understand dolphin vocalizations, but new computer tools to both track dolphins and decode their complex vocalizations are now emerging. Dr. Denise Herzing has been studying Atlantic spotted dolphins, Stenella frontalis, in the Bahamas for over three decades. Her video and acoustic database encompasses a myriad of complex vocalizations and dolphin behavior. Dr. Thad Starner works on mining this dataset and decoding dolphin sounds, and has created a wearable underwater computer, CHAT (Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry), to help establish a bridge for communication between humans and dolphins. Starner and Herzing will present this cutting-edge work and recent results, including perspectives on the challenges of studying this aquatic society, and decoding their communication signals using the latest technology.
qz | The possibility of talking to animals has tickled popular imaginations for years, and with good reason. Who wouldn’t want to live in a Dr. Dolittle world where we could understand what our pets and animal neighbors are saying?
Animal cognition researchers have also been fascinated by the topic. Their work typically focuses on isolating animal communication to see if language is uniquely human, or if it could have evolved in other species as well. One of their top candidates is an animal known to communicate with particularly high intelligence: dolphins.
Dolphins—like many animals including monkeys, birds, cats, and dogs—clearly do relay messages to one another. They emit sounds (paywall) in three broad categories: clicks, whistles, and more complex chirps used for echolocation (paywall), a technique they use to track prey and other objects by interpreting ricocheting sound waves. Researchers believe these sounds can help dolphins communicate: Whistles can serve as unique identifiers, similar to names, and can alert the pod to sources of food or danger.
Communication is most certainly a part of what helps these animals live in social pods. But proving that dolphins use language—the way that you’re reading this article, or how you might talk to your friends about it later—is a whole different kettle of fish.