Tuesday, 20 September 2011
How Far Will Dolphins Go to Relate to Humans?
Dr. Herzing is no tourist cavorting with marine mammals. As the world’s leading authority on the species, she has been studying the dolphins for 25 years as part of the Wild Dolphin Project, the longest-running underwater study of its kind.
“I’m kind of an old-school naturalist,” she said. “I really believe in immersing yourself in the environment of the animal.”
Immerse herself she has. Based in Jupiter, Fla., she has tracked three generations of dolphins in this area. She knows every animal by name, along with individual personalities and life histories. She has captured much of their lives on video, which she is using to build a growing database.
And next year Dr. Herzing plans to begin a new phase of her research, something she says has been a lifetime goal: real-time two-way communication, in which dolphins take the initiative to interact with humans.
Up to now, dolphins have shown themselves to be adept at responding to human prompts, with food as a reward for performing a task. “It’s rare that we ask dolphins to seek something from us,” Dr. Herzing said.
But if she is right, the dolphins will seek to communicate with humans, and the reward will be social interaction itself, with dolphins and humans perhaps developing a crude vocabulary for objects and actions.
Other scientists are excited by the project. “ ‘Mind-blowing’ doesn’t do justice to the possibilities out there,” said Adam Pack, a cetacean researcher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and an occasional collaborator with Dr. Herzing. “You’ve got crystal-clear warm water, no land in sight and an interest by this community of dolphins of engaging with humans.”
How far will dolphins go to engage?
“The key is going to be coming up with a system in which the dolphins want to communicate,” said Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi. “If they don’t care, it won’t work.”
Dr. Kuczaj developed an early two-way communication system while working at a captive lab in Orlando in the late 1980s. The system relied on visual symbols, not sound, and used a large stationary keyboard that proved to be too cumbersome.
But he says that the effort gave him confidence that such a system could work and that Dr. Herzing is “definitely the closest to getting there.”
“If it works,” he said, “it’ll be a huge step forward.”
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