Dolphins Are Getting the Word From Trainers

Associated Press

Like Dr. Dolittle talking to his animals, Louis Herman is teaching a pair of bottle-nose dolphins the meaning of words.

And, although they haven’t exactly struck up a two-way conversation yet, the seagoing mammals are learning to do what they are told.

Herman, director of the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory of the University of Hawaii, for six years has been working with two female dolphins, Phoenix and Akeakamai, who were captured in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pool Toys Used


By using pool toys floating in a tank, the two dolphins have demonstrated that they can understand certain words. More important, they have shown that they understand that words strung together in different ways can mean different things--something long thought to be an exclusively human attribute.

“What we’re finding out is that dolphins can do quite a lot with that large brain,” Herman said. “With training and the development of their knowledge and skill in the laboratory, these animals can go far beyond what many had thought possible.”

Through workouts in two connected circular tanks, the dolphins have been taught a series of nouns, modifiers and verbs. Herman combines the words into commands and tests their comprehension by observing their responses to the commands.

New commands are created by new combinations of words or rearrangement of words according to grammatical rules. Correct response indicates the dolphins’ understanding of syntax, or how word order affects meaning.

For instance, the command “Get the hoop, and take it to the Frisbee” means something different from “Get the Frisbee, and take it to the hoop.”

Creating Sentences

Whether or not animals can create or understand sentences has long been an open question in scientific research.

It may take years to determine whether dolphins are capable of producing language, Herman said, but his dolphins are providing the equivalent of “yes” or “no” answers.

“We probed to see what would happen if we told the dolphin to jump over the ball and there was no ball,” Herman said. “The dolphin searched, in both tanks, for 50 seconds, then slowly returned to the trainer as if to say: ‘It’s not there.’ ”

“That’s a pretty large step in animal work, to be able to have an animal report back to you on what is out there and what is not out there,” Herman said. “In this way, the dolphin is telling us the contents of her immediate world.”

Two small panels were installed at tankside that “Ake,” can hit to indicate “yes” or “no” answers.

A small staff of permanent trainers is complemented by students from the University of Hawaii and volunteers. The work is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Navy’s Office of Naval Research and Earthwatch, a private research organization.

Rewarded With Fish

One morning recently, Phoenix underwent visual identification trials, using such things as a toy lawn mower, a laundry basket and a piece of storm drain. An assistant held up an item for several seconds and then took it away. Later, the researchers held the object up again, along with two other items. When Phoenix swam over to the original object, she was rewarded with a fish.

Among other things, the researchers have used the experiments to test the dolphins’ memory. Results so far indicate that dolphins have little problem remembering what they are shown more than a minute earlier, but they have a short attention span.

“After a while, the dolphin gets angry waiting,” Herman said.

“Ake” was tested on 24 sentences of from two to four words each. She got 23 of them right.

When the researchers introduce new words to create new commands, the dolphins’ performance has been only slightly below that for familiar commands, James Wolz, associate director of the facility, said.

Round and Square Hoops

On occasion, round hoops have been replaced with square hoops, large baskets with small baskets, and different kinds of balls have been used.

Changing particular items has not significantly impaired the dolphins’ ability to respond to commands, indicating that, to them, a basket is a basket, big or small.

“We wanted to find out whether a dolphin’s understanding of the word is broad, like ours,” Wolz said. “Apparently it is.”

The research began here shortly after Akeakamai and Phoenix were caught about one mile apart in the Gulf of Mexico on the same summer day in 1978 near Gulfport, Miss. The two were about 2 or 3 years old at the time.

Over the ensuing years, the two dolphins underwent different training at the Hawaii research facility. For Phoenix, an artificial audio language was created. Akeakamai was trained in a gestural language.

Linear Grammar Used

In addition, Phoenix was taught a linear grammar, in which the direct object came first, followed by the verb and then the indirect object. Akeakamai’s was non-linear, in which the indirect object came first, followed by the direct object, and finally the verb.

“Ake’s” language has been considered more difficult, in that she must first see, remember and analyze sentence parts before acting.

So far, Phoenix and Akeakamai have progressed at almost identical rates.

“For us to achieve what we have here has required long-term special education of the dolphins in the proper environment,” Herman said. “If the proverbial Martian were to land on Earth and inspect a primitive New Guinea tribe as representative of Homo sapiens , he would reach very different conclusions about the intellectual potential of Homo sapiens than if he were to land in Silicon Valley.

“Yet, that potential resides as much in the primitive New Guinea native as it does in the Silicon Valley specialist. It’s just a matter of realizing that potential through education and culture.”

Communication Possible

Over the long term, Herman said, his research could lead to a two-way language between man and dolphin.

“In theory,” he said, “we might like to ask: Tell us what your society is like, how do you communicate with each other? What are the messages you send and receive? How do you determine your migration? Essentially, what is it like to be a dolphin?”

But, in reality, that’s more like science fiction than true science, he said.

“What we can ask is about competencies,” Herman said. “Can the dolphin do this? Can it do that? What are its abilities? What are its limitations?

“But the answers to these questions, because they are factual, can be very revealing about what it is like to be a dolphin.”