By: Melissa Cronin
Dolphins are notorious for their animal intellect, one of the most advanced in the animal kingdom. Now, humans are getting closer to understanding just how that famous intelligence works, thanks to an underwater translator that allows scientists to decode the whistles of dolphins.
New Scientist spoke to Denise Herzing, director of the Wild Dolphin Project, who is conducting research with the technology. During a recent trip to the Caribbean, Herzing was was wearing a prototype dolphin translator called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT), listening to calls from a dolphin pod she’d been working with for 25 years. All of a sudden, she heard it translate a live dolphin whistle for the first time. The translator recognized the specific vocalization that had previously been introduced by the research team, a whistle they colloquially call “sargassum,” or seaweed.
“I was like whoa! We have a match. I was stunned,” Herzing told New Scientist. She and her team had introduced the particular “sargassum” whistle in the hopes that the dolphins would naturally pick it up. Thanks to CHAT, Herzig was able to hear the word “sargassum” in her own ear as the dolphin made the corresponding whistle — in a way, translating the dolphin’s sounds.
The findings are incredibly new and haven’t been repeated yet. But already, the team has been able to match certain certain strings of vocalizations with mother-calf interactions, suggesting that these noises may be associated with certain relationships. Researchers hope that CHAT, which uses pattern-discovery algorithms to decode sounds, could help them figure out what the dolphins’ natural communication with one another really means.