They engage in recreational sex stimulation and, interestingly, in more homosexual behavior than any known animal. They can also recognize a nonsense command and ignore it. And dolphins have responded to abstract symbols. These sorts of astonishing anecdotes are seemingly endless.
Dolphins undoubtedly communicate with one another as well, in the form of two distinct types of vocalization: whistles and pulses. Dolphins also use pulses to echolocate—the sonar-like use of sound waves and echoes to determine where objects are in space. For decades, dolphin researchers have worked to decode these sounds, with difficulty. These whistles function much like a name: Dolphins use their own whistle to introduce themselves.
But carry on a polite conversation? Top American dolphin experts were united last week in their skepticism. Marc Lammers, an expert in marine bioacoustics and cetacean behavior at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, was outspoken in his criticism. Lammers explained that the study is flawed both methodologically and in the manner in which it was presented.
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The study positioned the dolphins at the surface of the water—in an attempt to eliminate the possibility that the dolphins might have been producing echolocation clicks—and then recorded them to the side, using a hydrophone. Lammers said there was no reason to believe that the dolphins were taking their turns in conversation.
We know that dolphins produce clicks in a whole range of circumstances. And we know that they often avoid producing sounds at the same time so as not to interfere with one another. Herzing has studied a wild spotted dolphin population in the Bahamas across 30 years and multiple generations. Eventually, she began recording dolphin noises—thousands and thousands of hours. As far as decoding goes, Herzing says that she can recognize specific types of sounds correlated with social actions like fighting, mating, or disciplining a calf. But any evidence of conversations remains elusive.
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