Two-Way Communication With Dolphins Begins With ‘Sargassum’

Posted by on April 13, 2014 in Sci-Tech, Science, Technology with 1 Comment
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Jason Dorrier | Singularityhub | 13th April 2014

dolphinsA human researcher floats near her ship recording a series of whistles from a nearby grey-skinned creature with great dark eyes. Amid the chatter, the computer recognizes a waveform and whispers a word into the researcher’s ear: sargassum.

This isn’t first contact with an alien race—but it’s almost as cool and closer to home.


Beth Herzing and the Wild Dolphin Project (the longest running study of its kind) have been collecting dolphin sounds and behaviors for the past 26 years. Recently, the group made up their own dolphin whistles, assigned each sound a definition, and played them to dolphins, hoping the sounds might be picked up and mimicked.

The team uses a system called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) specially designed to send out sounds and recognize when a dolphin mimics them. It was one of these mimics Herzing’s hydrophones recognized as the phrase for ‘sargassum’—a kind of brown algae and favorite Atlantic spotted dolphin toy (see above).

Though researchers have long listened to dolphins whistling and clicking, the diction bewilders the human ear. Using modern microphones, however, scientists can record the full range of frequencies dolphins use to communicate  (some beyond human hearing), and computers can mine the data for patterns invisible to us.

The recent result was the project’s first “translation” of a dolphin whistle, but the researchers are cautious about assigning too much meaning to it. And it’s important to note, there was no indication the whistle was being used in context.

Michael Coen, a University of Wisconsin-Madison biostatistician, says, ”It sounds like a fabulous observation, one you almost have to resist speculating on. It’s provocative.”

It does seem to show, however, that CHAT—developed by Thad Starner, a technical lead on Google Glass and director of Georgia Tech’s Contextual Computing Group, and a group of graduate students—seems to be working.

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  1. lolitacrum@googlemail.com' Grace Woods says:

    Great Piece

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