Claim that Dolphins Have Conversations May Not Hold Water

September 16, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

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Study’s conclusions are premature, experts say.

A scientist claims to have recorded two dolphins engaging in human-like conversation — complete with “words” and “sentences” — for the first time. But dolphin experts are not convinced.

The study, published in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics, describes the back and forth acoustic communication of a pair of Black Sea bottlenose dolphins, named Yasha and Yana, living in a pool at the T. I. Vyazemsky Karadag Scientific Station in Russia.

Researcher Vyacheslav Ryabov recorded the dolphins making pulsed click sounds, theorizing that a single pulse represented a word, and a string of pulses in quick succession formed a sentence.

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As he writes in his paper, “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.”

“Essentially, this exchange resembles a conversation between two people,” Ryabov concludes.

But when National Geographic spoke with several experts in dolphin communication, the reactions to the study and its conclusions were less than favorable.

One issue was the study design. According to Marc Lammers, a dolphin acoustics researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, the sound produced by dolphin clicks is directed straight in front of the animal, so the fact that the dolphins’ sounds were measured at a 90-degree angle was problematic.

“The Ryabov paper effectively ignores most of what is currently known about the properties of dolphin clicks, how to measure them correctly, and how they are used by animals in various contexts, and instead lays out the author's own ideas for how dolphin communication might work by weaving together some simple observations with various disconnected notions of acoustics, cognition, and language research,” he tells National Geographic.

Stephanie King, a member of the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance in Australia, does not believe that the dolphins’ tendency to produce back and forth sounds without interruption is anything remarkable.

“Many, many animals across the animal kingdom will avoid signal masking and thus time their vocalizations accordingly,” she explains to National Geographic. “This by no means should be compared to human language.”

Although there is little doubt that acoustic communication in dolphins is highly complex, the general consensus is that it’s premature to conclude dolphins speak a language or have conversations comparable to those of humans.

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