Research has already demonstrated that dolphins are intelligent enough to demonstrate a basic grasp of language and to respond to human prompts, but a prominent dolphin researcher is probing whether dolphins are capable of starting conversations.
Denise Herzig, one of the world's foremost authorities on dolphins, is undertaking the ambitious project in the ocean near the Bahamas. She is hoping to demonstrate that dolphins can do more than just confirm they want food when it is offered -- she wants to see if dolphins can understand that through a series of whistles and clicks, they can request it.
'Mind-blowing' doesn't do justice to the possibilities out there, Adam Pack, a cetacean researcher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and an occasional collaborator with Dr. Herzing, told The New York Times. You've got crystal-clear warm water, no land in sight and an interest by this community of dolphins of engaging with humans.
Effort to Decode Dolphin Sounds
Herzig will employ an underwater suit that can help decode the sounds dolphins produce and also generate dolphin speech. Two divers will interact in front of the dolphins, repeating an exchange in which one diver plays a particular whistle sound and is handed a piece of seaweed or a scarf by the other diver. The hope is that the dolphins will make the connection between making a sound and receiving a reward, and will imitate it.
I think if they pick up on it, Dr. Herzing said, they're going to be excited and say, 'Oh, my gosh, now I have the power to get what I want in real time.'
Researchers believe that dolphins use three distinct units of communication: whistles identify things, functioning somewhat like names, clicks are used for echolocation and burst pulses are a combination of the two.