To Talk With Aliens, Learn to Speak With Dolphins

The Kepler Space Telescope announced a new bonanza of
distant planets this month, reconfirming that solar systems, some possibly
hosting life, are common in the universe.

So if humanity someday arrives at an extraterrestrial
cocktail party, will we be ready to mingle? At the Wild
Dolphin Project
in Jupiter, Florida, researchers train for contact by trying
to talk with dolphins.

Behavioral biologist Denise Herzing started studying
free-ranging spotted dolphins in the Bahamas more than two decades ago. Over the
years, she noticed some dolphins seeking human company, seemingly out of

“We thought, ‘This is fascinating, let’s see if we can take
it further,’” Herzing said. “Many studies communicate with dolphins, especially
in captivity, using fish as a reward. But it’s rare to ask dolphins to
communicate with us.”

Dolphins have large, sophisticated brains, elaborately
developed in the areas linked to higher-order thinking. They have a complex
social structure, form alliances, share duties and display
personalities. Put a mirror in their tank and they can recognize
themselves, indicating a sense of self.

When trained, they have a remarkable capacity to pick up
language. At the Dolphin Institute in Hawaii, Louis Herman and his team taught dolphins hundreds of words using gestures and symbols. Dolphins, they found, could understand the difference between statements and questions, concepts like “none” or “absent,” and that changing word order changes the meaning of a sentence. Essentially, they get syntax.

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See also: Mark Caney’s comments about dolphins

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