Hal Hodson, New Scientist
It was late August 2013 and Denise Herzing was swimming in the Caribbean. The dolphin pod she had been tracking for the past 25 years was playing around her boat. Suddenly, she heard one of them say, "Sargassum".
"I was like whoa! We have a match. I was stunned," says Herzing, who is the director of the Wild Dolphin Project. She was wearing a prototype dolphin translator called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) and it had just translated a live dolphin whistle for the first time.
It detected a whistle for sargassum, or seaweed, which she and her team had invented to use when playing with the dolphin pod. They hoped the dolphins would adopt the whistles, which are easy to distinguish from their own natural whistles – and they were not disappointed. When the computer picked up the sargassum whistle, Herzing heard her own recorded voice saying the word into her ear.
As well as boosting our understanding of animal behavior, the moment hints at the potential for using algorithms to analyze any activity where information is transmitted. "It sounds like a fabulous observation, one you almost have to resist speculating on. It's provocative," says Michael Coen, a biostatistician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Herzing is quick to acknowledge potential problems with the sargassum whistle. It is just one instance and so far hasn't been repeated. Its audio profile looks different from the whistle they taught the dolphins – it has the same shape but came in at a higher frequency. Brenda McCowan of the University of California, Davis, says her experience with dolphin vocalizations matches that observation. Read more.