Jul 25, 2021

Searching for Language in Dolphins – Cracking the Code with Denise Herzing (video)

Is the observed symbolic communication in the spotted dolphin complex enough to be considered language?

By Templeton Staff

For the past 30 years, Dr. Denise Herzing has been observing and collecting data about the Atlantic spotted dolphins of the Bahamas. “I’m interested in dolphins because of their large brains, and what they might be doing with all that brainpower in the wild.” Do dolphins have a language? If so, can we learn to interpret its meaning? And one day have two-way communication with them? Aided by new technology, we are closer to the answer than ever before.

The Wild Dolphin Project (WDP) founded by Dr. Herzing has been tracking the lives of three generations of dolphins in the clear, shallow waters of the northern Bahamas. The project has collected thousands of hours of sounds and behavior. The data has gained insight into individual dolphins and their relationships within the group.
Studying dolphin communication is made easier through the use of a sound localizing system. This technology enables researchers to distinguish which dolphin is making a given sound. An underwater camera is linked to an array of microphones that can isolate and tag individual dolphin sounds and connect them to visual signals.
Assisted by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation’ Diverse Intelligences initiative, Dr. Herzing and her team are focused on discovering if the observed symbolic communication in the spotted dolphin is complex enough to be considered language.

Highlights from this installment of our award-winning “Stories of Impact” video series:

  • Interpretation of the collected data from observing the spotted dolphin has taken a leap forward with the help of advancements in artificial intelligence. Machine learning along with context gathered by humans is offering a deeper understanding of dolphin communications. 
  • Individual dolphins have what is known as their signature whistle. They broadcast their identity to other dolphins and these greetings can be heard for as far as 5 miles.
  • The leading-edge tools used to understand dolphins are now being shared with researchers investigating other animals in an attempt to discover if there are any language rule structures that exist between species.

This video is a Jackson Wild Media Awards™ 2021 Finalist in the "Animal Behavior Short Form" and "Science in Nature Short Form" categories.

Discover the podcast version of this interview.

Learn more about a TWCF-funded research project related to this episode.

Read the transcript from the full interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay featuring: Dr. Denise Herzing, Research Director and Founder of the Wild Dolphin Project and Affiliate Assistant Professor in biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University.

Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” videos by journalist and senior media executive Richard Sergay feature human stories and critical perspectives on breakthroughs about the universe’s big questions. The inspiring narratives and observations in these award-winning videos portray the individual and societal impacts of the projects that bring to life TWCF-supported research.