SCIENCE

Dolphin Conversation Caught On Tape For First Time

Does this mean they have their own human-like language?

13/09/2016 11:54 PM AEST | Updated September 14, 2016 02:47
Zoonar RF via Getty Images
Some scientists have poured cold water over a Russian study that suggests dolphins have their own language in which they can hold conversations with each other.

A study claims to have recorded a previously unknown language between dolphins it describes as akin to human speech ― but not everyone’s convinced.

Researchers say they made an audio recording of two black sea bottlenose dolphins named Tasha and Yana emitting unique pulses and whistles that “most likely” formed words and sentences.

The dolphins at the Karadag Nature Reserve in Russia were even described as pausing and listening to one another before responding, according to the study, published last month in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal.

“…the dolphins took turns in producing pulse packs 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,” the report states. “Essentially, this exchange resembles a conversation between two people.”

It goes on to say that the “fundamental difference between the dolphin exchange of information and the human conversation is in the characteristics of the acoustic signals of their spoken language.”

Essentially, this exchange resembles a conversation between two people.” Study out of the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal

The issue of dolphins communicating with each other through sounds has been raised before. Whether they have a secret language, however, has long divided scientists.

Dolphin Communication Project director Dr. Kathleen M. Dudzinski, who has studied the behavior and communication of the marine mammals since 1990, argues that more is needed for the verbal exchanges to be deemed a language.

“This is an interesting study,” she said of the Russian report in an email to The Huffington Post on Monday, “but the described experiment does not show that dolphins are transmitting complex semantic information to each other like what we see for human language.”

Dudzinski said the study instead showed similarities between dolphin communication and human language, which has long been seen.

“There are a number examples of this in the scientific literature. However, the current weight of evidence suggests that dolphins do not have a language that functions in the same way as human language,” she continued. “Thus, we feel this recent publication is not really a novel item and is unlikely to gain much traction with scientists/academics.” 

The current weight of evidence suggests that dolphins do not have a language that functions in the same way as human language." Dr. Kathleen M. Dudzinski, director of the Dolphin Communication Project

One such article Dudzinski believes backs her argument is a 2013 piece published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, titled “Are Conversations Between Dolphins and Humans Possible?” The article addresses how communication and conversation aren’t always the same thing.

Justin Gregg, a senior research associate with the Dolphin Communication Project, similarly examined such a discussion in a 2006 article titled, “Do Dolphins Have A Language?”

“…yes, language is a form of communication, but communication can happen in so many different ways ― not just through language,” he stated.

Gregg went on to point out physical gestures and vocalizations used among animals, and humans, for communication, which don’t necessarily form a language.

Researchers studying dolphin communication in 2007 reported distinguishing nearly 200 different whistles from bottlenose dolphins. Some of the sounds were linked to specific behaviors. That led the lead researcher, Liz Hawkins, to conclude that dolphins do have their own language.

“This communication is highly complex, and it is contextual, so in a sense, it could be termed a language,” she told New Scientist at the time.

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