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Researchers: No, dolphins do not really have conversations

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From Jason Bittel at National Geographic:

This week, headlines have been swirling about a paper published in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics that seemed to offer tantalizing signs of dolphinese. Two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins were recorded exchanging a series of sounds that resembled “a conversation between two people.” The dolphins took turns producing the sounds and did not interrupt each other, according to study author Vyacheslav Ryabov, a senior researcher at the T. I. Vyazemsky Karadag Scientific Station in Russia.

Ryabov suggests that the variation seen in these pulses represents the equivalent of phonemes, or words, and that the strings of pulses could reasonably be considered dolphin sentences.

However, many of the world’s leading experts in dolphin communication remain, shall we say, unconvinced.

“It is complete bull, and you can quote me,” says Richard Connor, a marine biologist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and a researcher of dolphin social interactions for more than 30 years.

Of course it is “complete bull.” If dolphins were able to think and thus communicate like humans, they would not be getting caught in tuna nets nearly as often.

Wouldn’t it be nice if animals could be appreciated for what they can do?

Dolphinese? There is the curious tale of pop skeptic astronomer Carl Sagan and the Order of the Dolphin:

In 1961, the great scientist Carl Sagan joined a semi-secret society called the Order of the Dolphin, which hoped to establish communication with intelligent extraterrestrials. Among the society’s members was a neuroscientist named John Lilly, who had made a name for himself popularizing the idea that dolphins have their own language, as well as a kind of super-intelligence that rivals our own. Crack the code of dolphinese, argued Lilly, and we will be able to decipher any alien language we might encounter. (Wall Street Journal) (paywall)

Everybody ends up believing in something.

See also: Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds

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