Researchers working to learn dolphin language at Case Western Reserve

(U-WIRE) CLEVELAND – The gregarious chatter and behavior of bottlenose dolphins has long captured the imagination of animal cognition researchers.

By studying these intriguing characteristics, Sara Waller of the philosophy and cognitive science departments at Case Western Reserve University and a team of students are currently attempting to correlate dolphin vocalizations to specific behaviors.

“Scientifically, we would love to find some correlation between vocalization type and specific behavior,” said Waller. “Philosophically, I would love to find some prerequisites for language, common components in meaning systems across species, and assumptions made by researchers about dolphin minds as they categorize and classify behaviors that are both communicative and non-communicative.”

To Waller, “consciousness is the most amazing thing in the world. The fact that I, and others, have experiences in a material world is simply astounding. Philosophy and cognitive science are the two disciplines that seem to address the question of consciousness most directly.”

Waller became interested in the possibilities of dolphin vocalizations as they relate to human cognition and language early in 2000 when she applied for an internship at the Cetacean Behavior Lab at San Diego State. Initially, Waller thought the research applied to her own questions in philosophy of mind and language.

If one wonders how dolphin chatter has a connection to philosophy, Waller said that interpreting how dolphins communicate can eventually lead to an understanding of language and communications in different animal species.

“I want to look at some possible applications for theories of linguistic meaningfulness in cases of radical translation,” Waller said.

Radical translation cases, as Waller explained, “are situations in which we suspect another group of beings is using a language” but no translator exists to interpret what is being heard or said.

“The language must be learned from scratch, using observations and interaction as a guide to our level of comprehension of the meanings behind their vocalizations and behaviors,” she said.

Unlike most researchers of human radical translation, Waller is extending the idea to other mammals. She decided to take “it a step further into the animal realm to find answers to such questions as: What makes language meaning-bearing? How can we determine when communications take place?”

“In philosophy, radical translation is only discussed theoretically,” said Waller. “The questions I am raising as a philosopher involve extending the notion of radical translation to studies in cognitive ethology.”

Back in 2001, Waller recorded the vocalizations and behaviors for her project at Black’s Beach in Southern California. Most of the data was collected every Thursday and Friday from February through May, at 6 a.m and 12:30 p.m. But students are just beginning to digitize 20 hours-worth of night vocals and behavior provided by Waller’s research partner in California, Eric Howarth.

Standing atop a 900-foot cliff, Waller listened via hydrophone to the whistles and vocalizations of the mammals as they congregated in the popular feeding ground. Meanwhile, a video camera rolled to capture the behavior of the mammals as they ate.

This data is now the crux of what Waller is piecing together. Students in her research team are in the process of analyzing the captured audio, parsing the clicks and whistles with the help of various software. Then, after all of the many hours of audio have been analyzed, the students will attempt to correlate specific whistle and click patterns to identifiable behaviors, such as eating and playing, or even more explicit subsets of each behavior.

But the very nature of the data has made the research arduous.

“The material is very subjective, so it is critical to constantly cross-check with everyone working on the project,” said Michelle Cehn, a pre-veterinary biology major and one of the head student interns. “I found that the best way to have the same data interpretations is to literally work together on the analysis for the initial period of time. However, as more students get involved it becomes increasingly difficult to coordinate these efforts.”

Despite the effort it took to coordinate the students and the analyses, the project has resulted in favorable results.

“So far the data seems to reveal that commonly used scientific classifications of dolphin behaviors are probably grossly oversimplified,” said Waller. “In captivity, dolphins respond to commands that are syntactically complex. Yet we classify their behaviors as: feed, travel, mill, play, and social. These categories do not show any recognition of subtle, cognitively based behaviors, such as meaning-decoding through syntax recognition, and are quite anthropomorphic.”

“I hope that if research of this nature can further prove that dolphins are intelligent sentient beings that communicate and have complex social structures, people will become more supportive of their well-being,” said Cehn.

The Low Frequency Sonar emitted by the Navy cripples the sensory navigation of dolphins, as well as other sea life that relies on sonar. Because of the sonar, dolphins lose their ability to navigate, locate food, and avoid predators. As a result, dolphins have regularly beached themselves en masse.

For the other goals of her research, Waller and her team are about to look for signature whistles, or the equivalent of names or faces for dolphins.

Waller has already written several papers on signature whistles and names, “speculating on the relationship between the ability to use an auditory self-identifier and having self-awareness,” she said. She hopes this new research will provide some concrete answers to her speculations that there is a good chance that dolphins indeed have what humans would consider to be names.

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