Animal Intelligence how Dolphins Read Symbols

Dolphins have long been known to have acute eyesight and hearing. They are also curious and inquisitive. Now researchers with the Wild Dolphin Project have taken advantage of those facts to recruit wild dolphins into developing a common language, by using the dolphins’ ability to read and comprehend visual and audible symbols.

Dr. Denise Herzing and fellow researchers began by setting up a large underwater keyboard in an area frequented by a group of wild spotted dolphins. These dolphins had known and been known to the researchers for many years, with regular interaction between humans and dolphins. During this time, the researchers had played with the dolphins for a total of 40 half-hour sessions.

Each key of the keyboard had a precisely-pitched whistle and was painted with a different symbol. These keys each represented a unique prop, such as scarves or balls. When a key was pressed, the researchers threw the corresponding prop into the water. The researchers also responded to dolphin whistles that mimicked the sound of the key.

At the end of 3 years, the researchers and dolphins had established a shared, primative form of language. Most communication occurred with young female dolphins, especially after researchers had just spent time playing with them and making eye contact.

This is not the first time dolphins have learned to interpret symbols. Dr. Louis Herman and his team trained 4 dolphins, Akeakamai, Phoenix, Elele, and Hiapo, to understand a basic vocabulary, conveyed through either human gesture or different electronic whistle sounds. Some of the words were objects or names, and some were commands. The dolphins were capable of understanding simple sentences, including new combinations of words, and could also understand when a sentence did not make sense.

More recently, the trainers at Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences have trained several dolphins to read 2-dimensional symbols as commands. They also discovered that while dolphin intelligence was more than adequate to the task, dolphins also grew bored quickly.

The dolphins in Herzing’s study were not trained how to use the keyboard as a command tool. Instead, the dolphins were free to discover that they could train their humans to throw the corresponding prop into the water by pressing the correct key. The spotted dolphins even brought a group of wild bottlenose dolphins into the game.

Herzing’s research may have implications for future communication with alien species. The study discovered that without any compulsion or training reward, the dolphins were willing to initiate interaction and communication with humans. Herzing proposes that species sponteneity could be one way of initiating interaction with alien species.