Dr. Doolittle would be proud of Denise Herzing. The behavioral biologist has been visiting dolphins in the ocean for 20 years and she may be close to establishing advanced communication.
Scientists have been communicating with dolphins for years, teaching them what we mean by “fetch”, “ball”, “man”, and what the difference is between “Bring the ball to the man” and “Bring the man to the ball.”
But what Herzing does is fundamentally different. While those other scientists take captive dolphins in pools and try to teach them human language; Herzing goes out to the ocean and tries to learn dolphin language. This is ground-breaking work. No one before has tried to establish real two-way communication.
Everything about studying dolphins (or other animals) in the wild is different from when they’re in captivity. Just for starters, they’re under no obligation to show up for a session with you. That means you have to establish some basis of communication, invite the dolphins to participate in something that they will find more interesting than what they’re already doing, and play by their rules.
Herzing learned early on that you need to learn dolphin etiquette. Human etiquette includes introducing yourself politely, making small talk, mimicking what the other person does (like smiling when they smile) and making eye contact. With dolphins, it’s not that different: you start by swimming in synchrony with them, mimicking what they’re doing and then making eye contact.
While dolphins can understand simple human language quite easily, we humans have drawn an almost complete blank at understanding dolphinish. Their language and means of communicating are very advanced. Just for starters, they can project sound in any direction without having to face in that direction. So the scientists can’t even easily tell which dolphin is talking, let alone what they’re saying. And the range of vocalization involves much higher frequencies than the sounds we can make and hear.
CHAT with dolphins
To take the next step in establishing communication, Herzing has teamed up with Thad Stamer, an artificial intelligence researcher at Georgia Tech, on a project called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry, or CHAT. This involves a computer the size of a smartphone, which will analyze dolphin sounds and then play them back to the dolphins to see if they can establish communication.
There’s more detail about how this will work in an article in New Scientist. Wired magazine also discusses the topic and relates it to how scientists at the SETI Institute are following Herzing’s work to help develop a protocol for how we might try to communicate with extraterrestrials.
You can also visit Dr. Herzing’s Wild Dolphin Project website.