Do dolphins actually have conversations?

A publication in the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University Journal: Physics and Mathematics has grabbed recent media attention resulting in headlines 'Scientists record first-ever dolphin conversation' and 'Scientists discover that dolphins can "speak like humans"'.

Like most news about our sea mammal friends, this tid-bit is intriguing... until you read the actual details of the study. Turns out the authors recorded vocalisations from two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins in capitivity and observed that each dolphin would 'pause' as if 'in conversation'. Now, that may fly in some anthropology zoo keeper journal (no offence) but this is the St Petersbury Polytechnic University Journal! Are these observations really all the evidence we need to conclude, as one media outlet puts it, 'Dolphins can speak almost like humans, according to Science'?

This article by National Geographic has already outlined the major problems of the paper, particularly the finer points on how best to record underwater dolphin sounds, turns out the authors really made a blunder by recording the 'conversation' while the animal's heads were out of the water, which can really confound the validity of their recordings. The article also has a ripper quote from marine biologist Richard Conor, who said in reference to the paper:

“It is complete bull, and you can quote me"

Now I don't want to diss the paper too much because a) animal communication is not my area of expertise, and b) studying dolphin conversations is really fucking cool. However, it's important to think about how a paper like this got any media mileage at all considering how non-significant it is in the (really awesome) field of animal behaviour. 

There's nothing new about an animal pausing between calls

Animals are very aware of the noises that surround them. Many song birds, for example, will pause in response to another's bird song. Many species often 'listen in' to the alarm calls of other species nearby and respond accordinly. Some animals even change their vocal pitch to compensate for louder noises, in fact many species are affected by this 'acoustic masking' both on land and in the sea, and this phonemena has been well documented in whales and dolphins. 

Dolphins and whales have many sounds, like clicks and whistles, that have long been thought of as langauge, and scientists have puzzled over this code for decades, but why am I describing it to you when Carl Sagan can do it so much better?


How do you prove animals are conversing using language?

This is a trickier and stickier problem then just recording the range of vocalisations that animals use. How do know that a specific noise denotes a specific meaning?  Well, the answer is, it's not simple. There have been some well-crafted experiments, mainly on birds and monkeys, that saught to test whether individuals have specific sounds for certain individuals or predators. You can listen to some such 'words' that prairie dogs use here. However, there's always uncertainty, like, are these sounds conveying the meaning 'eagle, get the fuck outta here!' or a more generalised 'wholy shit - I'm scared' danger-style alarm? There's also many layers to human language that are deeply wrapped up with our cognition. Conceptual use of language goes far beyond simply labelling things with sounds and is very tricky to prove in anmals.

These are the types of questions that make the field of animal communication so messy and facinating. It has resulted in some brilliantly designed experiements, such as this one that tested if horses recognise the individual 'neighs' of their peers. They replayed recordings of a neigh from a familar horse to the subject horse, they then curtain-revealed ('this is your life' syle) either the horse that had made the neigh or a completely different, stranger horse. They then watched to see what reaction this caused in the subject horse: either no response (for the familiar horse) or a startled response (for the unfamiliar). 

Another issue in these types of studies is the inherit bias that comes along with human researchers studying something so 'quitensentially human' like language, thought and emotion. Here's a fantastic article by Slate on Koko the Gorilla and the issues that arise when studying a species so close to us, if you're interested.

The point is, it's very difficult to prove that an animal can talk at all, let alone whether it is conversing in the pool. And that brings me to the next point.

Media articles like this misrepresent the scientific process

I know it may seem like science has all the answers - we store our knowledge in those big text books you had to read in high school that are full of facts, but actually, those books aren't the truth - they're just a set of rules and theories that currently best explain things about the world (see scientific method). They're a work in progress, and so are scientific papers. It's important to recognise that not every study is a radically new discovery. Rather a paper may just represent one small piece of evidence, either in favour of or in opposition to, the current working theories. It's unfortunate that science communication so often misrepresents a whole field of academic thought. Richard Conor really puts it best (again from the National Geographic article):

"The biggest problem... is that now when people make real scientific discoveries on dolphin communication, the public, having been exposed to this nonsense, will not be impressed because they will think Russian researchers already showed that they have language."

This type of science communication is rife on social media, and while seemly innoculus click bait, it sublty builds public mistrust of science while simultaneously underestimating the public's capacity to understand and engage with the scientific process, in all it's messy glory.