Do Dolphins Carry On Conversations?

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We all like to think we know what other animals are saying. “Leave my acorn alone!” screams the squirrel on the sidewalk. “I’m so glad you’re home!” cheers your dog when you walk in the door. But the truth is that we don’t actually know. Animal communication researchers have made enormous advances in the last few decades, but there is still plenty to learn. So when one scientist said he’d found evidence of human-like dialogue in dolphins, experts raised an eyebrow.

Dolphins are incredibly smart animals, although they don’t always use their considerable intellect for good. They’re also very social, which means that communication is vital to their survival. Their clicks and whistles have a range of uses, from calling pod members to signaling an attack on some hapless shark. Each dolphin has its own signature whistle, which acts like its name, and some recent research suggests that female dolphins start teaching their calves their own names before they’re even born.

Author Vyacheslav Ryabov, of the T. I. Vyazemsky Karadag Scientific Station in Ukraine, was interested in the casual dolphin-to-dolphin discussions of Yana and Yasha, two of the station’s captive bottlenose dolphins. He used underwater microphones to record the dolphins’ chatter as they floated near the edge of their pool, then analyzed the rhythms and frequencies of each dolphin’s noises.

Ryabov concluded that Yana and Yasha were carrying on a sophisticated, human-like conversation, in which each dolphin waited for the other to finish its “sentence” before starting to speak.

“Dolphins have possessed brains that are somewhat larger and more complex than human ones for more than 25 million years,” he writes. “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 communications between dolphins and people.”

Dolphin translator technology isn't quite as far-fetched as it sounds; researchers at the Wild Dolphin Project have been fine-tuning one such device for years. And the idea that dolphins don’t interrupt each other is not new. Still, Ryabov took it to the next level, veering into somewhat zany and hyperbolic territory, and other researchers are pretty turned off by both his utopian vision of dolphin-human brotherhood and his somewhat primitive research methods.

“It is complete bull,” marine biologist Richard Connor told Jason Bittel at National Geographic. Other experts, like Wild Dolphin Project research director Denise Herzing, were slightly more diplomatic in their language.

“This article does not present adequate data to make conclusions about dolphin sound structure or language,” she said in a statement to mental_floss. “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 animal language to the test.”

And then there's the paper's suspiciously short review period. The journal that published it, the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics, notes that the article was submitted August 16 and published a mere five days later, which suggests the journal eschewed any peer review process.

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