Cracking the Code

There has been recent media coverage about our work with our two-way interface between humans and dolphins (CHAT: Is it a Dolphin Translator or an Interface?).  But did you know that for the last 30 years Wild Dolphin Project has been working on cracking the code of the dolphins own communication system?

When I set up in 1985 to the Bahamas, my mission was to spend 20 years in this field site in order to understand, by observing and recording behavior and sound underwater, how dolphins really spent their time and how they communicated with each other.  After about 10 years in the field I began to see patterns emerging as I heard “synchronized squawks” every time spotted dolphins would fight with bottlenose, or I saw young calves make an “excitement vocalization” whenever they were erratically swimming (Herzing, 1996). As we observed dolphins growing up we could see how some of these coordinated behaviors began to develop. Young male spotted dolphins clumsily tried to coordinate their fighting behavior as old male dolphins looked on with apparent interest.  Female spotted dolphins produced their signature whistles when rounding up their young charges (see “Dolphin Diaries”: My 25 years with Atlantic spotted dolphins” for more details).  As time went on, our catalog of sound and behavioral correlations grew.  We watched another generation of dolphins growing up and going through the same ritualized behaviors, using the same types of sounds; we were observing the development of a dolphin society in the wild.

One of the reasons why 2014 is so exciting for me is because we finally have some of the technology we need to understand the communication systems of animals.  Many diligent and committed scientists have, for decades, studied a variety of species in many ways:  Jane Goodall descried the pant hoots and other features of the chimpanzees communication system (The Jane Goodall Institute), Diane Fossey described body language and behavior of mountain gorillas (The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International),  Seyfarth and Cheney documented the use of specific alarm calls for specific predators in vervet monkeys,  Con Slobodchikoff performed detailed experiments and recorded specific types of alarm calls for prairie dogs.

Our second project with the Georgia Tech team involves the use of sophisticated algorithms to pull out patterns of information in the dolphin sounds in our database.  Daniel Kohlsdorf, a PhD student, is presenting the first part of the work at the ICASSP conference this spring in Florence Italy.  Such computer methods can help us determine what the smallest unit of information is and if the dolphins actually recombine smaller units to make larger units of information.  The combinatorial aspect of language is part of what give it power and detail, so for many animal behaviorists this is a first step.  This type of analysis is already being used in primate studies (see M Coen and B McCowan in New Scientist article).  This is our fist attempt to break down detailed parts of the dolphin sounds using these powerful computer tools. Creating partnerships between computer science and animal communication science has been critical, allowing us to break new ground by utilizing never-before used pattern recognition programs, and discovery algorithms (that don’t’ require computer training), to the mysteries of animal sounds.

Why is it important to understand and study animal communication?  Well, from my perspective, anything we can learn about the natural world is important.  Science delves into the deepest mysteries of the natural world and helps connect us to nature.  Although much of our work at Wild Dolphin Project is about observing and studying natural dolphin communication, I recently read an article from an author who commented that our two-way communication work utilizing a technological interface (New Scientist article) was a flight of fancy…..using the term ‘vanity technology’.  This term was new to me and I guess it means developing technology just for fun or for no apparent reason.  Personally I don’t think the development of a keyboard interface to explore the mind of a chimpanzee, a bird, or a dolphin is any kind of flight of fancy. It’s called science and it is a genuine step towards understanding the minds of nonhumans through the use of a technological interface.   In fact, studying the cognitive abilities of other species, their communication signals, and types of intelligence, should only increase our respect for our planet and the diversity of life and minds that exist on this watery world.  There are many reasons to save the Earth and finding the diversity of minds on the planet may be yet one more reason.  Should this stop us from engaging in advocacy for conservation and preservation? Of course not, but studying the minds of others and giving them a voice will add a new facet to our human understanding, one where we might actually start respecting nonhuman animals for their own abilities, rather than how they can serve humanity.


-Dr. Denise Herzing


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