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Editor’s Note: We’re proud that researchers continue to study and learn more about these magnificent animals, but noted dolphin researcher Dr. Kelly Jaakkola with the Dolphin Research Center says there is not enough evidence to support the conclusion of an actual conversation. Learn more from Dr. Jaakkola here.
By: Laura Lillycrop
Researchers have finally recorded a pair of bottlenose dolphins having a conversation after decades of communication research. The breakthrough was accomplished after scientists created an underwater microphone, which could distinguish the dolphins’ different “voices”.
For years scientists have known that these mammals have an advanced form of communication. Using specific clicks and whistles they are capable of showing that they are happy, excited or stressed if they get separated from the rest of the pod. It has now been shown that dolphins also alter the volume and frequency of pulsed clicks to form “words”. Basically, these impressive animals can string together sentences in the same way that humans speak to one another.
In 2007 Australian scientists identified specific whistles, which were interpreted to mean ‘I’m here, where is everyone’, ‘Hurry up’ and ‘There’s food over here’. Dolphins are also thought to have established a type of sign language in which they communicate using their flippers.
The two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins in this experiment, Yasha and Yana, were observed waiting for each other to finish their “sentence” before replying back. Lead researcher Dr Vyacheslav Ryabov from the Karadag Nature Reserve, in Feodosia, Russia said: “Essentially, this exchange resembles a conversation between two people.”
When asked to explain further, Dr Vyacheslav Ryabov stated, “Each pulse that is produced by dolphins is different from another by its appearance in the time domain and by the set of spectral components in the frequency domain.
“In this regard, we can assume that each pulse represents a phoneme or a word of the dolphin’s spoken language.
“The analysis of numerous pulses registered in our experiments showed that the dolphins took turns in producing sentences and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other’s pulses before producing its own.
“This language exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, this indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins, and their language can be ostensibly considered a highly developed spoken language, akin to the human language.”
Dolphins have much larger brains than many mammals on Earth. In fact, the brain is 1,800g and 0.9 percent of its average body weight, which is the same brain-to-body weight percentage as a chimpanzee. They have possessed brains that are bigger and more complex than humans for more than 25 million years.
The concept that dolphins have increased intelligence was brought into the limelight in the 1950s by neuroscientist John Lilly. He attached electrodes to the brains of dolphins in order to stimulate neurons. He observed that a dolphin that was about to be brutally killed made loud noises, which he interpreted as attempts to communicate with its tormentors. After progressing with his experiments, Lilly became convinced dolphins had a similar faculty of speech as humans and attempted to develop a form of contact with the marine mammals.
The researchers from the Karadag Nature Reserve found that Yasha and Yana could create sentences of up to five “words”, but the scientists still do not understand the content. A further study in Florida this year showed that the communication between dolphins increases when they are undertaking a difficult task such as removing the lid from a canister. This can be interpreted as if the animals were discussing the best solution.
Dr Ryabov said it was now beyond doubt that dolphins possess their own form of language and it is about time to start researching how to communicate directly with them.