“What’s that Flipper? The treasure is over there?” So went a typical plotline for the popular TV series featuring the cute, bottlenosed dolphin who could communicate with his human guardians, and who – in the time-honoured fashion – used his animal powers to apprehend criminals.
The idea that animals like Flipper can communicate with humans is not just the preserve of the small and big screen. History is littered with celebrity animals who have communicated with human scientists, with varying degrees of success. Many apes, including Washoe and Nim the chimps, and Kanzi the bonobo, have learned to communicate by using sign language or symbols on a keyboard. Alex, an African grey parrot learned over 100 English words, which he could use and combine appropriately; his poignant last words to Irene Pepperberg, his scientist handler, were “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow."
Dolphins hold a particular fascination; we are captivated by their intelligence and beauty, and swimming with dolphins features regularly on lists of things to do before you die. Denise Herzing has a lifetime of such experiences. For the last 27 years, she has been swimming with a group of Atlantic spotted dolphins in Florida as part of the Wild Dolphin Project. She can identify every individual and they, in turn, seem to trust and recognise her. It is a solid foundation for the boldest attempt yet to talk with dolphins.
“Talk” is tricky to define. A SeaWorld trainer who prompts a dolphin to jump for fish is arguably communicating with it. But such simple one-way interactions are a far cry from the conversational world of Dr Doolittle. Here, the dolphin responds, but says nothing intelligible back. Herzing’s vision is much more ambitious – she wants to establish two-way communication with her dolphins, with both species exchanging and understanding information.
The idea of talking to dolphins has a long and chequered history. It was widely publicised in the 1960s by John Lilly, who argued that dolphins have such large brains that they must be extremely intelligent and have a natural language. All we had to do was to “crack the code”. Much of Lilly’s work was highly questionable. He once flooded a house to keep a captive dolphin, instigated failed attempts to teach them spoken English, and even gave the animals LSD (while taking the drug himself). But there is no denying his influence in popularising the idea of two-way dolphin communication. “He said that in a few years, we will have established complex dialogue with them,” says Justin Gregg from the Dolphin Communication Project. “And he was saying that every few years.”
Lilly was right about dolphin intelligence, but not dolphin language. A true language involves small elements that combine into larger chains, to convey complex, and sometimes abstract, information. And there is no good evidence that dolphins have that, despite their rich repertoire of whistles and clicks.
Little less conversation
Wild dolphin communication is hard to study. They are fast-moving and hard to follow. They travel in groups, making it hard to assign any call to a specific individual. And they communicate at frequencies beyond what humans can hear. Despite these challenges, there is some evidence that dolphins use sounds to represent concepts. Each individual has its own “signature whistle” which might act like a name. Developed in the first year of life, dolphins use these whistles as badges of identity, and may modulate them to reflect motivation and mood. This year, a study showed that when wild dolphins meet, one member of each group exchanges signature whistles.