Black Sea dolphins found to speak in sentences, responding in turn

13 Sep 2016

Scientists in Russia have discovered a pair of dolphins that communicate in sentences up to five ‘words’ in length, made up of clicks and pulses. Some of the planet’s smartest animals are smarter than we thought.

Largely accepted as third only to humans and chimpanzees in terms of intelligence, bottlenose dolphins may be closer to the top of the list than previously imagined.

A research team in a scientific station at Karadag Nature Reserve in Russia have reported on two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins communicating in full sentences.

The dolphins, Yasha and Yana, spoke to each other, taking turns to produce pulses and clicks that may represent words, approximating conversation.


Feel the pulse

“Each pulse that is produced by dolphins is different from another by its appearance in the time domain and by the set of spectral components in the frequency domain,” said Vyacheslav Ryabov, who led the research.

“In this regard, we can assume that each pulse represents a phoneme or a word of the dolphin’s spoken language,” he said.

Using a special recording device called a hydrophone, Ryabov captured audio of the dolphins conversing.

No special training was given to the dolphin duo and there was no reward system, merely communication between Yana and Yasha when they “habitually swam” towards a walkway in their tank, floating at the surface with very little motion.

The research study was published in Science Direct. According to the paper, the results suggest a “highly developed spoken language in toothed whales”, based on the similarity of their acoustic signals and morphology.

Monkey see, monkey do

Dolphins aren’t the only animals we’re studying to find out how they communicate. Earlier this year, it was established that chimps and bonobos also take turns when they chat with each other.

With largely gesture-based dialogue, researchers noticed one communicating, uninterrupted, with another waiting patiently to respond.

Bonobos’ interactions are quicker, with their use of a “gaze” allowing them to anticipate incoming signals “before they have been fully articulated”, according to Marlen Froehlich, a researcher who studies behavioural interactions among animals.

The bonobos’ communications are closer to the human method than chimpanzees’, with the chimps exhibiting a slower process of signals, pauses and responses.

Dolphin image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic