National Geographic : 2015 May
36 national geographic • may 2015 study, nobody can say what the fundamental units of dolphin vocalization are or how those units get assembled. “If we can find a pattern connecting vocaliza- tion to behavior, it’ll be a huge deal,” says Kuczaj, 64, who has published more scientific articles on dolphin cognition than almost anyone else in the field. He believes that his work with the synchro- nized dolphins at RIMS may prove to be a Ro- setta stone that unlocks dolphin communication, though he adds, “The sophistication of dolphins that makes them so interesting also makes them really difficult to study.” Yet virtually no evidence supports the exis- tence of anything resembling a dolphin language, and some scientists express exasperation at the continued quixotic search. “ There is also no evidence that dolphins cannot time travel, can- not bend spoons with their minds, and cannot shoot lasers out of their blowholes,” writes Jus- tin Gregg, author of Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth. “ The ever-present scientific caveat that ‘there is much we do not know’ has allowed dolphinese proponents to slip the idea of dolphin language in the back door.” apparent coordination is only an illusion. Or it’s not an illusion at all: When they whistle back and forth beneath the surface, they’re literally discussing a plan. W hen a chimpanzee gazes atapieceoffruitora silverback gorilla beats his chest to warn off an approaching male, it’s hardnottoseeabitof ourselves in those behaviors and even to imag- ine what the animals might be thinking. We are, after all, great apes like them, and their intelli- gence often feels like a diminished—or at least a familiar—version of our own. But dolphins are something truly different. They “see” with sonar and do so with such phenomenal preci- sion that they can tell from a hundred feet away whether an object is made of metal, plastic, or wood. They can even eavesdrop on the echo- locating clicks of other dolphins to figure out what they’re looking at. Unlike primates, they don’t breathe automatically, and they seem to sleep with only half their brains resting at a time. Either one dolphin is mimicking the other, or when they whistle to each other below the surface, they’re literally discussing a plan. Their eyes operate independently of each other. They’re a kind of alien intelligence sharing our planet—watching them may be the closest we’ll come to encountering ET. Dolphins are extraordinarily garrulous. Not only do they whistle and click, but they also emit loud broadband packets of sound called burst pulses to discipline their young and chase away sharks. Scientists listening to all these sounds have long wondered what, if anything, they might mean. Surely such a large-brained, highly social creature wouldn’t waste all that energy babbling beneath the waves unless the vocalizations contained some sort of meaning- ful content. And yet despite a half century of But where Gregg sees a half century of failure, Kuczaj and other prominent researchers see a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that leads them to believe that the problem simply hasn’t yet been looked at in the right way, with the right set of tools. It’s only within the past decade or so that high-frequency underwater audio recorders, like the one Kuczaj uses, have been able to capture the full spectrum of dol- phin sounds, and only during the past couple of years that new data-mining algorithms have made possible a meaningful analysis of those recordings. Ultimately dolphin vocalization is either one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science or one of its greatest blind alleys.