By Edwina Shaw
Can We Start Speaking To Dolphins?
Scientists are now able to begin deciphering how dolphins convey information to each other and to then use this information to start a conversation.
Recently scientists have made a significant breakthrough in inter-species communication. Researchers in the UK and USA have proved that the clicking sounds dolphins use for echolocation actually form reproducible holographic pictures that the researchers suggest may be the basis of dolphin language.
With the use of cutting edge technology such as the CymaScope and 3D print technology, the scientists at SpeakDolphin believe they have been able to see what dolphins see for the first time. This amazing discovery has exciting implications for the future, as the first step in being able to potentially communicate with dolphins in their own language.
Dolphins communicate in a wide variety of ways, just as we do. They use body language, using touch to communicate both affection and aggression. They have even been known to hold flippers, just as we hold hands. Dolphins don’t have vocal cords, but instead have a complex system, including a balloon-like structure in their foreheads called a melon.
They have even been known to hold flippers, just as we hold hands.
They have two sets of lips near the blowhole that force air through, much as air is squeezed through the nozzle of a balloon, to create sounds. This air is recycled through the system so the dolphin can remain underwater for extended periods while echolocating or communicating. Through these lips, dolphins can both whistle and make clicking sounds or click bursts, sometimes at extremely high speed.
Deciphering The Dolphin Code
Early on in dolphin research, scientists discovered that each dolphin has an individual whistle that they use to identify themselves, and that other dolphins use to call them in return. When a dolphin is in trouble it sends out a series of these whistling sounds, as if calling for help from friends. The clicking sounds were discovered to be a form of echolocation, using sound to create mental images of the surroundings, which dolphins can use with extreme accuracy, focusing in on one fish in a swarming school, to track elusive prey.
Some scientists also believed that dolphins could use their clicks to transmit information to other dolphins in their vicinity. Click bursts, or high speed clusters of clicks, are thought to have additional meanings, beyond simply identifying objects. Dolphin researchers suggested that these click bursts are a form of communication that dolphins use when they’re playing or to indicate aggression. Mother dolphins have been observed to focus an angry click burst at a misbehaving calf, for example.
Findings like these have spurred great interest in how dolphins communicate and raised questions about their cognitive abilities. At first, scientists and animal trainers were only interested in what they could teach dolphins. These days there is interest in what they can teach us. Especially since this latest breakthrough, which begins to prove that the suppositions of these early researchers may be correct.
An Innate Intelligence
The pioneer of dolphin research, John Lilly, was a neurophysiologist at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health. In the 1950s, he was the first to suggest that dolphins had a language of their own. His books, Man and Dolphin: Adventures on a New Scientific Frontier and The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence, brought people to an awareness of the sophisticated intelligence that dolphins possess.
Lilly opened a dolphin research facility and attempted to teach a dolphin named Peter to speak English with some success. However, in the 60’s Lilly’s experiments grew more and more controversial—including injecting dolphins with LSD—so his funding dried up and the study of dolphin communication fell into disrepute.
Then in 1970, a University of Hawaii psychologist named Louis Herman reignited scientific interest and began experiments of his own, teaching dolphins language and raising them as children. Yet, despite almost half a century of study since these pioneering efforts, nobody has been able to prove definitively what the fundamental units of dolphin vocalization are, or how those units get assembled. This is what makes the recent findings about the holographic mental images created by echolocation such an exciting breakthrough.
Starting A Conversation
Until recently, there has been no evidence that a dolphin has been able to transmit anything like an image to other dolphins through echolocation. However, earlier this year, researchers in the USA and UK made this significant finding when they used a new piece of technology, a CymaScope, to translate a dolphin’s clicking sounds into a holographic image of the submerged man she was echolocating. Team leader, Jack Kassewitz of SpeakDolphin.com, is delighted with the result.
This is the first time we have captured a what-the-dolphin-saw image of a man.
Previously they’d used other objects such as crosses and flower pots and were to some degree successful, but this image of a man has made it clear that a dolphin’s clicks translate as a mental image that humans can now also decipher. This has tremendous implications for people to now begin learning how to communicate with dolphins.
Just as in the recent sci-fi movie Arrival, where a linguist struggled to decode the multidimensional images aliens were communicating, scientists are now able to begin deciphering how dolphins convey information to each other and to then use this information to start a conversation.
The Holographic Experiment
For the ground-breaking experiment, a man wearing a weight belt was submerged underwater and a trained dolphin then used a series of clicks to identify the man through echolocation. The dolphin’s echo signal was recorded using high specification audio equipment and the recording was then sent to the CymaScope laboratory in the UK.
There, acoustic physics researcher John Stuart Reid, used the CymaScope to transcribe the sound sample by imprinting it onto a water membrane by using the quasiholographic properties of sound and its relationship with water. The holographic image that emerged was the mirror image of the submerged man complete with details such as the weight belt.
This demonstrated that the CymaScope can capture what-the-dolphin-saw images and suggested that dolphins can also see surface features, such as the weight belt. Kassewitz, Reid and their team are now speculating that dolphins may employ a “sono-pictorial” form of language, a language of pictures that they share with each other. As Kassewitz explains:
If that proves to be true an exciting future lies ahead for inter species communications.
How Dolphins Speak to Each Other
It can be speculated that dolphins use auditory information to perceive the world similarly to how humans use vision. Though perhaps they would have an even greater degree of perception as the auditory centres of their brains are highly developed, with auditory nerves containing as many fibres as human optic nerves.
What the scientists have found most exciting is the probability that these sound images are shared with other dolphins as part of their communication.
It’s likely that dolphins integrate information from all their senses to create a complete and complex interpretation of their surroundings. What the scientists have found most exciting is the probability that these sound images are shared with other dolphins as part of their communication.
Sending Visual Images
Some humans who are blind are also able to use echolocation to identify their surroundings. They make their way safely through an unfamiliar environment by using clicking sounds and listening for the reflected echoes from the objects they encounter. Studies conducted on these people show that their visual cortex is also activated as they echolocate through an environment, demonstrating that brain areas usually reserved for vision can be activated by other sensory modes.
Because of the similarity between human and dolphin brains, this suggests that dolphins may also be creating visual images through echolocation, which they then communicate to other dolphins.
The success of the experiment translating echolocation clicks into a holographic image of a man makes this speculation a reality. This is what has excited scientists and dolphin lovers alike, as humans take one step closer to being able to communicate with our playful friends in the sea.