Being an animal lover and being a human in general, I think it is safe to say that most people imagine animals having their own voice, even if we can’t understand them. Whether it is your pet, a dolphin, or any other animal you come in contact with, people are notorious for anthropomorphizing animals (myself included!) or adding human attributes to them even though they are not human. I say notorious for a reason because it is not correct, or fair for that matter, to assume your pet or any animal has thoughts, feelings, emotions, or communicates the way human beings do.
It has long been know that dolphin communication is advanced and complex in its own right, but the elusive question of dolphin spoken language has been lingering over scientist’s heads for decades. Working with marine mammals, I have seen many headlines popping up from Facebook to the news app on my ipad about this mysterious new evidence of dolphin to dolphin conversations. My first reaction was excitement but the skeptic in me knew I needed to do further research. The idea of another animal having a language like humans do is quite extraordinary. While many animals communicate, complex language and conversations have been purely human attributes that we know of thus far. Curious and excited to look into this new claim, here is everything I could dig up on the new findings of dolphin to dolphin conversations.
New evidence of dolphin conversation
Animal communication researchers have made leaps and bounds in advancement of what we know about animal communication over the last decade. However, when headlines came out about a researcher who found evidence of human like dialogue between dolphins, even the experts raised an eyebrow.
It is without a doubt, that dolphins are one of the most intelligent mammals on the planet. They are highly intelligent and correspondingly highly social marine mammals that live in family structures called pods. For years, scientists have known dolphins communicate in an advanced and unique form. Dolphin communication has always been recognized as critical to dolphin health and survival as dolphins often show cooperative hunting strategies. This is where multiple dolphins work and communicate together to catch prey. Dolphins also use their clicks, whistles, and wide repertoire of sounds to signal to other dolphins and cue the others in on occurrences in their environment as well as an individual dolphins current state (stressed, playful, flirty etc.). They also use echolocation, or natures sonar, to navigate the oceans they swim through, find prey, ans even locate other dolphins.
The new evidence and paper comes from author Vyacheslav Ryabov of the T.I. Vyazemky Karadag Scientific Satation in Russia. He was very interested in casual conversations between dolphins at the station, specifically two female Black Sea bottlenose dolphins named Yana and Yasha. To collect the data he was looking for, Ryabov used an underwater microphone to record the dolphins “chit chat”. The underwater microphone was said to be able to distinguish individual dolphins unique “voices” and pick up distinct “words”. Once the chatter was recorded, he further analyzed the frequencies of the dolphin sounds. After analysis he concluded, Yana and Yasha were having a “sophisticated and human-like” conversation in which each dolphin waited for the other to finish “speaking” before starting to speak themselves.
According to the paper, each pulse that is produced by an individual dolphin is different from another thus each different pulse is similar to a different word. Ryabov’s data analysis registered many different pulses in his experiments (as seen above) showing that the dolphins took turns in producing sentences and did not interrupt each other. This gives the researchers reason to believe that the dolphins listened to the other’s pulses before producing their own.
Ryabov writes in his findings, “Dolphins have possessed brains that are somewhat larger and more complex than human ones for more than 25 million years. Due to this, for further research in this direction, humans must take the first step to establish relationships with the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet Earth by creating devices capable of overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of using languages and in the way of communication between dolphins and people”.
What to make of dolphin conversation claims
While the idea of dolphin translator technology isn’t exactly new and it has been suspected before that dolphins don’t interrupt each other, many researchers are not buying into Ryabov’s utopian dolphin-human vision and are repulsed by his relatively primitive research methods and poorly devised experiment. To say it politely, the majority of them are less than impressed.
Richard Connor, a marine biologist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and a researcher of dolphin social interactions for more than 30 years, told National Geographic’s Jason Bittel that, “you can quote me” and the study was “complete bull”. Connor goes on to say, “The biggest problem is that now when people make real scientific discoveries on dolphin communication, the public, having been exposed to this nonsense, will not be impressed because they will think Russian researchers already showed that they have language.”
Denise Herzing, research director at the Wild Dolphin Project, found the article lacks data and evidence to back up its radical claims. She has studied dolphins for the last 30 years and even has developed pattern recognition algorithms to identify reoccurring sounds and structures that could be the basis for language in dolphins. She goes on to say, “Although we applaud the author for exploring dolphin vocalizations with some new methods, we urge caution regarding these conclusions and look forward to the day when we put the question of nonhuman language to the test.”
Another red flag with the paper is its short review period. The journal that published the findings, the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics, did so just 5 days after the article was submitted. This suspiciously fast turnaround suggests that the journal skimped in any part of the peer review process.
After further review of Ryabov’s methods, many researchers are saying the study is incomplete and thus is not conclusive or even valid. Marc Lammers, an expert in dolphin acoustics and an associate research professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, examined the data collected and the manners in which the data was collected and concludes that the methods caused skewed or inaccurate data. Ryabov measured the dolphin’s sounds at an approximately 90 degree angle. Lammers points out that this in itself would have a dramatic effect of the collected data since the 90 degree angle would produce a decreased amplitude and different waveforms and frequencies than if the sounds had been measured straight on. Lammers explains, “It’s difficult to make a simple human analogy, but it might be somewhat similar to recording a conversation by people in the other room speaking into pillows.” Obviously this is not the way to learn a new language let alone discover a new language.
Also, the dolphins were recorded at the surface or top of their habitat. This is a major red flag thanks to the way the air-water edge reflects sound waves. By choosing to record at the surface, there is no way to know for certain that all the noises recorded were strictly from the dolphins
Lammers puts the nail in the papers coffin by saying, “The Ryabov paper effectively ignores most of what is currently known about the properties of dolphin clicks, how to measure them correctly, and how they are used by animals in various contexts, and instead lays out the author’s own ideas for how dolphin communication might work by weaving together some simple observations with various disconnected notions of acoustics, cognition, and language research.” Lammers later states that he normally lives by the “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it” philosophy of life, but in this case he’ll make an exception. He says, “In the internet age, it is too easy to lead people without background knowledge astray.”
What this means for future research
Just in case this reality really bummed you out (I know I was disappointed!) don’t worry; many researchers still believe in complex communication in dolphins, and that there is a lot more for us to learn about dolphin communication. However, many researchers are frustrated that false findings have circulated and spiraled through social media outlets so quickly misinforming people. Stephanie King, a research fellow at the University of Western Australia and a member of the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance, expresses her feeling by stating, “This type of research and the resultant media coverage does an extreme disservice both to animals by anthropomorphizing their behavior, and other scientists, who have spent years painstakingly studying dolphin communication and who base their conclusions on well-designed method and experimental techniques”.
As far as Ryabov is concerned, he stands by his work and deflects critics by claiming they are not reading his paper closely enough.
References and photos courtesy of: