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Dolphins’ interactions are surprisingly similar to ours

Image: Talia Cohen

Dolphins are considered some of the most intelligent animals on Earth, so it might not come as a complete surprise that dolphins communicate to each other, in an interaction similar to a human conversation.

Researchers at the Karadag Nature Reserve, in Ukraine, observed a pair of Black Sea bottlenose dolphins, named Yasha and Yana, having a humanlike conversation for the first time in history. Each dolphin would wait until the other dolphin stopped clicking or whistling to ‘respond’.

Lead researcher on the study, Dr Vyacheslav Ryabov, has said: “The analysis of numerous pulses registered in our experiments showed that the dolphins took turns in producing pulse packs and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other’s pulses before producing its own.” Their conversation characteristics were considered to be “akin to the human language”, and had hallmarks of higher cognitive functioning, a compelling suggestion of their intelligence.

There are two different types of noises dolphins use for communication: whistles and clicks. The study of dolphin communication is in its infancy, but it is known that dolphins exhibit interaction behaviours not found in many other animals, such as a self-identifying whistle, akin to a human name. Dolphins also have a huge variety of whistle types which they use depending on the social context.

In 2007, Australian scientists at the Whale Research Centre listened to bottlenose dolphins living on the Australian west coast to identify different whistles which were interpreted to mean “Hurry up”, and, “There’s food over here”, amongst other things. It is also thought that dolphins can communicate using sign language utilising their flippers. However, it was never clear if dolphins could converse with one another directly.

However, some researchers are doubtful about this new find. Joshua Smith, a research fellow at Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit, in Western Australia, says more research is needed before scientists draw conclusions about dolphins conversing similarly to humans.

Although he admits the results are exciting, he highlights the importance of repeating this experiment in an unconfined space. Yasha and Yana have lived in a small pool their entire lives, an artificial environment compared to most dolphins.

Normally, marine mammals will project sound to receive information back through sonar. This becomes less feasible in a swimming pool space with confined walls. If the same behaviours could be elicited from wild dolphins, in the open ocean, the results obtained here could take on a new significance.

Smith admits that he would like to see a “variety of alternative explanations”, rather than simply settling on communication.

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  1. Malcolm J. Brenner
    Sep 27, 2016 - 11:48 AM

    Scientists are, by nature and discipline, conservative. They also have egos and don’t like to think dolphins might be as smart as they are, but dolphins are fully capable of conceiving of “experiments” to run on their human subjects! Every dolphin trainer knows this, even if they won’t talk about it (at risk of their jobs). When are we going to give these creatures the credit they deserve, and recognize them as the non-human people of the sea?

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