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Attempting to communicate with other species on this planet has long been a far off goal of nearly every biological scientist. Aside from fantasies of becoming the real-life Dr. Dolittle, conversing with another species would offer fantastic new insights to the fields of evolution, communication, and psychology. For the most part, our attempts to teach various species to engage with us have been met with limited success.

However, new advances in science are enabling us to perhaps finally achieve this dream. Diligent study of dolphins has led many to believe that they do more than just recognize a series of clicks or hand gestures and use them to work together. Rather, the species may have what looks less like a crude form of coordination and more like a language. One that with the right tools, researchers such as Denise Herzing and her colleagues at the Wild Dolphin Project hope to understand.

Why Dolphins?

Is the Deepwater Horizon Spill Still Harming the Gulf's Dolphins?Pete Markham/Flickr


We can easily comprehend many of the communication techniques used by lesser apes, such as community hierarchy. The structure is much the same as our own, if only a less developed version. Dolphins are altogether different though. They use sonar to “see” objects and can understand various echolocation clicks from other dolphins to identify something over 100 feet away.

Aside from humans, dolphins have some of the most well-developed brains in the world. But because of significantly divergent evolutionary paths, our brains are fundamentally different. While primates have a large prefrontal cortex (used for critical thinking), dolphins seem to have a more highly developed paralimbic systems (used for processing emotions). Both brains are capable of recalling past experiences, complex problem solving, and planning for the future.

Speaking on Their Terms

Understanding how dolphins communicate is nearly the equivalent of holding a conversation with extraterrestrial beings; our thought processing mechanisms are so varied that no conventional communication techniques will work. Luckily, with recent developments of underwater recording technologies that can process big data and make sense of it, data scientists are able to collect the millions of vocalizations dolphins make and begin to decode their meaning.

By doing so, Denise Herzing and her team hope to be able to relate to dolphins on their own terms. Much of Herzing’s current research involves encouraging dolphins to respond to few differing human-created whistles that represent a couple props. She and her team are beginning to call out dolphins by their signature whistle (much like a human name) and play dolphin games with them using the props. Thus far their efforts have been met with quite a bit of success.

Looking Ahead

Dolphins and Humans Are More Similar Than You RealizeJay Ebberly/Flickr


Herzing and her team are collaborating with the Georgia Institute of Technology to continue to collect and analyze dolphin vocalizations in hopes of furthering their ability to interact with dolphins in a natural setting. Eventually, they hope to be able to use their technology to process what dolphins are saying, translate it to something we understand, and allow us to respond on the fly. We are still quite a ways off from that, but compared to where we were even 20 years ago we’re making leaps and bounds.

Finding a practical way to communicate with the species we share this planet with is a dream for many of us. Furthermore, documented communication with differing species provides a stronger platform for the idea that animals are emotionally aware and deserve greater legal recognition. The advent of new technology and the ability of creative individuals to put it to use is key to enabling these advances to be made. Who knows, it may be an accomplishment we see in our lifetimes.

Lead image source: Ricardo Liberato/Wikimedia Commons