Dolphins are one of the most amazing and intelligent animal species on the planet. Their playful nature, friendly behavior and remarkable intelligence make people all over the world adore them. Moreover, it appears that dolphins demonstrate skills and awareness previously attributed only to humans.
Scientists at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia in the US, used MRI scanners to map the brains of dolphins and then compared the received data with that of other intelligent mammals, particularly primates. The scans showed that dolphin brains are up to five times larger for their body size compared to other animals of similar size. At the same time, their neocortex, a part of the brain responsible for higher thinking and emotion processing, was particularly large.
“If we use relative brain size as a metric of ‘intelligence’ then one would have to conclude that dolphins are second in intelligence to modern humans,” said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University, and one of the world’s leading dolphin experts.
The same study also concluded that dolphins exhibit a number of human-like skills, such as comprehension of symbol-based communication systems, mirror self-recognition, and an understanding of abstract concepts.
“Dolphins are sophisticated, self-aware, highly intelligent beings with individual personalities, autonomy and an inner life. They are vulnerable to tremendous suffering and psychological trauma,” said Marino.
The findings of the study suggest that it’s unethical to use dolphins for our entertainment, keeping them in captivity in water parks, and killing them for food, as is currently happening in several countries in the world such as Japan, Peru, Solomon Islands, and the Faroe Islands where thousands of dolphins are killed every year. In this regard, Thomas White, a philosopher at Loyola Marymount University and the author of the book In Defense of Dolphins, said that “they should be treated as “non-human persons” and granted rights as individuals.” With India having already passed similar legislation, we are beginning to witness a paradigm shift in the mainstream on how we see these beautiful creatures.
Deciphering the dolphin language
It is a wide-known fact that dolphins use sound for orientation in space (via echolocation). However, it appears that they also have their own system of communication. Dolphins use a range of sounds and vocalizations, as well as physical contact and postures to communicate their emotional and physical state. They can also learn to read each other’s behaviors and signals to coordinate a number of activities such as feeding on fish or swimming together.
Scientists are trying to come up with a device that could decipher the sounds produced by dolphins. Jack Kassewitz, a researcher based in Miami, decided to use CymaScope, a device that makes sound visible, for just this purpose. He recorded the sounds produced by a dolphin when “seeing” objects, then turned them into images and showed them to the same dolphin again, this time without sound accompaniment.
The results showed that the dolphin managed to recognize the objects that corresponded to the images with an 86 % accuracy. Moreover, when the researcher showed the same pictures to another dolphin, it recognized the objects with the same accuracy! This suggests that cetaceans use sounds to communicate with each other in a similar way that we use words. Now, Kassewitz’s ambitious project titled SpeakDolphin is aimed at deciphering ‘dolphinese’ and starting basic communication with these amazing animals.
Dr. Denise Herzing’s Human-To-Dolphin Translator
(The following is an article written by: James Vincent of The Independent) Researchers testing a real-life human-to-dolphin translator have reported the first successful use of their technology in the wild, with a bottlenose dolphin pointing out a piece of nearby seaweed to a scientist in the water. “I was like whoa! We have a match. I was stunned,” Dr Denise Herzing, the director of the Wild Dolphin Project and creator of the device, told the New Scientist.
Known as the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry device (Chat), the translator uses a pair of hydrophones (underwater microphones) to capture the range of clicks and whistles made by dolphins. Rather than directly ‘translating’ these vocalisations into human speech, Dr Herzing has been teaching the dolphins a limited vocabulary defined by humans. This helps to simplify the massive range of noises made by dolphins, who produce sounds at frequencies up to 200 kilohertz – roughly 10 times higher than humans can hear. Dolphins, who are highly social animals capable of tool-use and self-recognition in the mirror, use signature whistles to refer to individuals within a pod and echolocation clicks as sonar, bouncing sounds off their environment as a hunting aid.
Dr Herzing has developed eight “words” that use dolphin-like vocalizations to refer to elements of the animals’ environment such as ‘seaweed’ and‘bow wave ride’ (when a dolphin rides the wave created by a boat). In her breakthrough moment with a pod she has studied for the last 25 years a dolphin made the unique whistle associated with ‘sargassum’, a type of seaweed. However, no one can say whether the dolphin was actively pointing out the vegetation, and the word has only been heard once.
Dr Herzing will be collaborating with Thad Starner, an artificial intelligence expert from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, to develop Chat, with the pair hoping to eventually begin analyzing the sounds made by the dolphins and creating a rough inter-species dictionary.
For more on Dr Herzing’s work and the amazing vocalisations please watch the video below: