Much like us, other animals have “languages” that they use in order to communicate with members of their own species. For example, prairie dogs have developed different “words” to describe various predators—barks, squeals and squeaks that contain different numbers of rhythmic chirps and frequency modulations to distinguish which one is currently after them. A single bark may mean “there’s a badger quickly approaching the colony. Run for cover.” Elephants are known to use low-frequency vocalizations that carry over vast distances to bind their complex family social systems together. In fact, an “elephant dictionary” is being developed. And last Thanksgiving, we learned that turkeys, too, have their own system of “speech.”
But a corollary question is quite intriguing: will we humans someday be able to talk to the other animals who share the planet with us? In the near future, could we all become real-life Doctor Dolittles?
Some recent research with dolphins and whales provides encouraging news—and an auspicious vision for the future.
CHAT-ting with dolphins
In the 1980s, a western lowland gorilla named Koko gained fame for supposedly learning American sign language. Some scientists, however, felt that peer-reviewed data about this claim was scant. They argued that Koko did not understand the meaning behind what she was doing and learned to complete the signs simply because her handlers rewarded her for doing so.
But more recent research with dolphins is proving more promising. Marine biologist Denise Herzing, founder and research director of The Wild Dolphin Project, a nonprofit which funds the study of the natural behaviors and communication of Atlantic spotted dolphins in the wild, is being called groundbreaking.
For almost 35 years, Dr. Herzing has been swimming with the dolphins in Florida, becoming well versed in the individual animals’ personalities and relationships. She’s also been collecting a vast digital library of their clicks and whistles. By combining her old-school fieldwork with cutting-edge technology, she’s hoping she’ll be able to finally bridge the gap and produce the true, interspecies conversations that have eluded scientists for so long.
Currently, Herzing is using a piece of equipment she calls a CHAT (Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry) box—which consists of a small, phone-sized computer; an underwater speaker; two hydrophones and a keypad—that is strapped to a diver’s chest. Once submerged, the computer detects and differentiates dolphin sounds, including the ultrasonic ones we cannot hear, and tells the diver which particular dolphin made a certain call.
The CHAT device can also play artificial calls, allowing Herzing to coin dolphin “words” for things that are relevant to them, such as seaweed or wave-surfing. Once the dolphins, who are skilled mimics, begin to simulate the artificial whistles and use them voluntarily, Herzing hopes to build a communication system with them, one that both humans and dolphins are invested in. The real breakthrough will come, she states, when the dolphins introduce their own vocalizations and whistles.
What makes Dr. Herzing’s research so challenging and remarkable is that she’s working with wild dolphins, who have the option to participate or not. But by focusing on objects in their natural habitat, rather than balls or hoops, Herzing hopes to pique their interests. Luckily, given her long history with the animals, she’s got a pretty good handle on what will grab their attentions.
Conversing with whales
Strides in human-cetacean communication are being made with whales, too. Seven years ago, in 2012, a study published in the scientific journal Current Biology reported that human-like sounds made by a captive beluga whale suggested that cetaceans could learn to mimic our voices—and perhaps even converse with us.
The beluga, named NOC, was captured in 1977 and became part of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. After seven years, NOC started to make noises that humans in the water mistook for human speech. The researchers began to run experiments to figure out how NOC was drastically lowering the frequency of his usual whale calls and matching his utterances to our speech rhythms.
Whales don’t have vocal cords, so to make his humanlike sounds, NOC had to change the air pressure in his nasal tract and make other adjustments to valves and sacs connected to his blowhole. Such obvious effort suggested to the study’s author, Dr. Sam Ridgway, that NOC may have been motivated by a desire for contact with the people around him. NOC died before the research was published, but Ridgway says he left behind an intriguing possibility that other captive belugas could one day learn to communicate with humans at “a conversational level.”
Then, just last year, another captive marine mammal made similar news. In January 2018, a study led by Jose Abramson from the Complutense University of Madrid was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Its subject, a 14-year-old, female orca called Wikie, resides at Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. While the study doesn’t prove that whales can speak English, it adds to the evidence that cetaceans are capable of one of the core building blocks of language development in humans: vocal learning, or the ability to copy novel sounds. Wikie utters noises that imitate the human words hello and bye-bye, as well as one, two, three and Amy, the name of her trainer.
While saying hello probably means absolutely nothing to Wikie, the word was specifically chosen, along with some other words, phrases and sounds, because it was something completely outside her normal sound repertoire. So, when Wikie produced reasonable copies of the sounds when instructed to, often on the very first attempt, it was compelling evidence that orcas have the capability to learn new sounds by copying.
Moreover, Abramson and his colleagues tested multiple sounds in three situations. In one, the orca was instructed using gestures to produce a sound to copy. In another, the target sound was played back through a loudspeaker. And in a third, a human produced the target sound. Each time, the whale’s responses were subjected to forensic acoustic analysis to measure just how good the copies were.
The results showed that although Wikie did not make perfect copies of all novel human sounds, they were recognizable facsimiles as assessed by both acoustic analysis and blind, external, independent observers. In other words, in all three scenarios, Wikie was an apt imitator.
Calling above the clatter
For now, however, whales and dolphins have more pressing communication needs than trying to converse with us. It’s getting harder and harder for them to “talk” to each other, echolocate and find prey above the ocean clatter we humans have created. Young are especially vulnerable; for example, humpback whale calves need to “whisper” to their mothers to avoid being heard by predatory orcas and aggressive adult male humpbacks. Unfortunately, their whispers are being drowned out by the din we make.
My real desire, however, deviates a bit from the title of the famous song written for the now-classic, 1967 film Doctor Dolittle. I want not only to be able to Talk to the Animals but, most of all, to be able to listen to them.
I, for one, would like to hear what they have to say to us.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,