Denise Herzing: Deciphering Dolphin Communication

Dr. Denise Herzing not only swims with dolphins, but is also trying to decipher their communication.


Ever since she was a child, Dr. Denise L. Herzing knew that her life’s work would be to work with dolphins. Today, Dr. Herzing is a behavioral and marine biologist and founder of the Wild Dolphin Project, where she studies behavior and communication of Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis).

One of the big questions that Dr. Herzing consistently asks about dolphins is “what are they doing with all that complex brainpower in the vast ocean”?

Information Encoded in Dolphin Sounds

Dolphins are known to make three types of sounds: whistles, clicks and burst pulses. Whistles are thought to be identification sounds, like names, while clicks are used to navigate and to find prey with echolocation. Burst pulses, which can sound like quarreling cartoon chipmunks, are a muddy mixture of the two, and Dr. Herzing believes that much information may be encoded in these sounds, as well as in dolphins’ ultra-high frequencies, which humans cannot hear.

New Technology for Interspecies Communication

Dr. Herzing uses an innovative, two-way communication system called CHAT (Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry) which was designed by Dr. Thad Starner and his team at Georgia Tech. It consists of a wearable underwater computer that can make dolphin sounds, but also record and differentiate them in real time. At a 2013 TED conference, Dr. Herzing talked about her work using two-way communication technology in her research:
Denise Herzing: Could we speak the language of dolphins?

The deciphering of a nonhuman species language could be one of our greatest feats. It may yet be our best training ground for exploring the cosmos for other life, for if we can’t understand and interact with life on this planet then there is no hope for our exploration of the galaxy. – Denise Herzing


Dr. Herzing has summarized her extensive work in Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas.




Featured video: The New York Times/YouTube


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