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Did A Dolphin-Human Translator Decipher Its First Word?
March 27, 2014
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(Photo: VALERY HACHE/AFP/GettyImages)

It's long been the subject of science fiction (and at least one commercial starring Megan Fox), but scientists may actually be able to communicate with dolphins.

At least, that's according to a new report this week from the New Scientist, in which a dolphin was said to have mimicked a unique whistle sound that researchers had taught it. The sound was used by researchers to refer to a specific thing — in this case, sargassum, a type of seaweed — and, the report suggests, the dolphin that later mimicked the sound was using it to refer to seaweed, too. 

This response was made possible thanks to a new translation device that broadcasts context-specific whistle sounds and listens to see if the animals imitate them. The sounds are similar to the ones dolphins normally use, but differentiated by pitch and length so that they're unique — and can therefore be used to refer to one particular item, like seaweed. 

The device was invented by Dr. Denise Herzing, a researcher who has been studying a single pod of dolphins in the Caribbean for the past 25 years as part of the Wild Dolphin Project. Called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT for short), it's operated by a diver and includes receivers to pick up and analyse nearby dolphin sounds. It can then translate those sounds for researchers into pre-recorded English-language snippets — but only if they match the sounds the researchers have taught the dolphins, as in the case of "sargassum." 

Herzing herself was at the controls of the device when it picked up the dolphin whistle.

Though the development was exciting for researchers, they're cautious about what conclusions can actually be drawn from this. For one thing, researchers can't know for sure that the dolphin was actually referring to seaweed at the time. “It is just one instance and so far hasn't been repeated,” the New Scientist said, adding that the captured sound “looks different from the whistle they taught the dolphins – it has the same shape but came in at a higher frequency.”

The finding remains a promising development in Dr. Herzing’s decades-long dolphin experiment, which she described in detail in this TED Talk last year:

Via New Scientist


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