A scientist named Denise Herzing has contributed to the development of human-dolphin communications by combining sounds with tools. According to Wired Science magazine, the rudimentary communication involved shared understanding of a keyboard language involving sounds and symbols. Wired claims the dolphins were able to learn the meaning of the symbols from humans who associated them with objects. When the dolphin learns the meaning of the sound or symbol they can then express both a recognition of the meaning and a desire for the object.
The details of the study are outlined in a the December 2010 issue of a journal called Acta Astronautica. This study builds on years of previous observations and interactions between humans and dolphins, however this time, the dolphins can tell humans what to do rather than the other way around. Some of the dolphins Herzing has been working with are available on the project’s website called Wild Dolphin Project. Among the dolphins are those named Little Gash, Brulle, Noldus, Freckles, Nightmare and Bell. Observing and interacting with these dolphins has enabled the Herzing and her colleagues to document important relationships and interactions between dolphins that reveal their social structure, and perhaps even an aquatic culture.
It is widely known that dolphins have very large brains, second only to humans in proportion to body size according to a May 2007 issue of PLoS Biology. Moreover, according to the PLoS Biology article which discusses dolphin neuro-anatomy, parts of primate brains associated with intuition, social awareness, and judgement are also evident in dolphins. The implications of marine biologists being able to speak with dolphins using a shared language has potential for advancing knowledge of how how dolphins communicate.
The evidence that dolphins have the capacity to communicate at a high level is documented by marine biologists’ observations of dolphin mimicry and learning association of sound with meaning as in Herzing’s work. If scientists like Herzing continue on with this line of study, the potential for more complex language and insights into the mind’s of dolphins could one day shed light on a marine intelligence that might even prove dolphins to have insights human’s may not have.
What is suspected to be different in the communication of dolphins in comparison to other animals is the complexity of sounds, and the possibility this may represent an actual language. Additional research in a program called Speak Dolphin has investigated and studied dolphin communication using specialized equipment called CymaScope as stated in a press release from the organization. With the dolphin sounds better broken down using the equipment, researchers at Speak Dolphin have begun attempting to decode the dolphin communication. Scientists cited in the press release are quoted as breaking important ground in deciphering and potentially being able to communicate with dolphins using sound.