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July 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Divers Try to Speak “Dolphin-ese”

from the July, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dolphins can understand more than 100 words, decipher human instructions and even use iPads to learn basic communication skills. But that's unfair of us humans, don't you think? Shouldn't dolphins be able to ask for more smelt without learning our sign language or using our gadgets? A researcher in Florida aims to meet the mammals in the middle, creating a new language that both humans and dolphins can understand.

Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, FL, and Thad Starner, an artificial intelligence researcher at Georgia Tech, developed software called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) and is testing it this summer. It involves a small computer encased in a waterproof shell and two hydrophones capable of detecting the full frequency of dolphin sounds, which can be up to 10 times higher than the highest pitch a person can hear. A diver will strap the computer to his chest, using a handheld device to select which sound to make in reply. The diver will wear a mask with LED lights that indicate where the sounds are coming from, so he will know which dolphin is talking.

The team hopes to create a new language using a calland- response method. Divers will play one of eight sounds they've already created, which correspond to dolphin desires like "play with seaweed" or "ride the boat's wake." Using CHAT software, the diver will determine whether the dolphin repeats the sound. Over time, the system will learn to recognize the dolphins' accent, as it were, and learn how to decipher natural dolphin sounds. Ultimately, the goal is to serve as a sort of Rosetta stone for dolphins, deciphering the fundamental units of dolphin language.

Herzing has successfully taught dolphins to associate symbols with specific requests, like "play with seaweed." But her system wasn't very dolphin-friendly, she tells New Scientist. The CHAT system will ideally play to the strengths of both dolphins and humans, allowing people to make dolphin-like communications that are more appealing to the cetaceans. And then they can tell us what they really think of living as aquarium attractions.

- - Rebecca Boyle,

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