Whistle while you swim

Whistle while you swim

In wishful whistling news, a woman heard her own voice coming from a computer and decided it was a dolphin talking to her.

In August 2013, Denise Herzing was swimming in the Carribean when she heard a dolphin say “Ack ack ack squeeee”.  She was wearing a prototype dolphin translator called Completely Hallucinatory Animal Translator (CHAT), and it had just translated a dolphin whistle for the first time.

Herzing, who had been stalking the great white dolphin pod for 25 years, discovered that the dolphin, lying on a deathbed of sargassum seaweed, made the sound just before passing away.  The CHAT translated the whistle as the word, “Rosebud”.

Last summer’s work was cut short because the team lost the dolphin pod, but they did make some progress after the dolphins came back carrying the Ack Ack Ack Squeeee Stone, a chunk of black granite which is inscribed with a decree written in dolphin, humpback whale, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Careful study of the relic enabled marine biolinguists to associate the dolphin phrase “Ack ack ack squeeee”, the whale song lyric “Hnrrnhnnhnrh” and the Egyptian “ankh eye man-looking-backwards ankh” with the English word “rosebud”.

Herzing is quick to acknowledge potential problems.  It is just one classic movie reference after a quarter century, and hasn’t been repeated. “At this rate, an infinite number of dolphins with an infinite number of typewriters should be able to bang out the Shakespeare’s Ack Ack Ack Squeeee in a few short eons.”  (Disclaimer: Dolphins are notoriously slow typists, due to the fact that dolphin typewriters only have three keys, “ack” “squeeee” and spacebar.)

When reached for comment, the lead dolphin (above, center) told reporters, “Ack ack ack squeeee.”  When the computer picked up the whistle, Herzing heard her own recorded voice saying, “We in the dolphin community applaud the work being done by Denise Herzing and the Wild Dolphin Project, and hope this leads to an era of friendship and cooperation between our two species.  There, that should be good for a few million in grant money. Hey, is this microphone still on?”

Thad Starner of Georgia Tech built CHAT for Herzing with a team of grad students who were mostly paid in pizza and beer.  The program uses pattern-discovery algorithms to discover patterns that a person might miss. As well as listening out for made-up whistles, the team hopes to start trying to figure out what’s really happening before their grant money and beer runs out.

While we’re on the subject of dolphins, Brenda McCowan of UC Davis is modeling the behaviour of rhesus macaques, so that people won’t have to touch macaque hands to see how they are behaving. The idea is to predict when the macaques would descend into the violent social unrest known as “monkey apocalypse” that often leads to the annihilation of humanity.

Among other things, her analysis showed that cage stability improved if new young adult males were introduced now and again.  “It wasn’t something a human could see, so we were really grateful that we had those rhesus macaques on the team.”  The California Bureau of Prisons, building on the research, has announced a radical new initiative where young adult males will be introduced to state penitentiaries now and again to improve prison stability.

Meanwhile, Terrence Deacon of UC Berkeley, who wandered into the story looking for something to eat, explained that if dolphins or macaques are exchanging information, and not just using Twitter, some part of their communication must not be random, meaningless noise, unlike Twitter.

“I don’t see a fundamental white line that distinguishes us from other animals,” Deacon said.  “Sometimes you just have to use subtler criteria like DNA, brain structure, method of reproduction, senses, lifespan, intelligence, tool use, civilization, communications ability, and common sense in order to distinguish species.  Hey, is there any pizza left?”

Ack ack ack squeeee.  (Translation: Click on the picture to read the original story.)

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