|Can humans really understand animals? How would animals and humans benefit by learning to speak a common language?|
Can animals communicate with humans?
You're hiking in the woods with a friend one evening when a wind kicks up and rain starts to pour down. Suddenly you realize your friend isn't with you anymore. You shout, but your voice gets lost in the storm. Taking out your flashlight, you signal "SOS" in Morse Code. A few hundred feet away you see your friend's flashlight signaling, "I'm coming."
Humans and animals both communicate in many ways. Humans use almost 6,000 spoken, written, and code languages and also depend on body language, sight, touch, and smell to relay messages. Animals communicate with many sounds, actions, and cues as well.
Dolphins, toothed whales, and porpoises depend on vocalization, echolocation, and ultrasound to communicate with each other and navigate. With echolocation, dolphins emit and process up to 700 clicking sounds per second to detect the size and location of an object hundreds of meters away. Researchers at the Living Seas exhibit at the Epcot® Center in Orlando, Florida, found that dolphin echolocation is sensitive enough to detect a three-inch steel ball from 100 yards away.
Another experiment at EPCOT Center involved a communications keyboard. Each key on the keyboard had a word written on it, and each key had a related cubbyhole containing an object that represented the word. Humans activated the keyboard by touching a key. Dolphins activated it by inserting their beaks into one of the cubbyholes. Inside each cubbyhole was an infrared beam. When that beam was broken by a dolphin's beak, the human word was heard on an overhead speaker. Dolphins used vision and echolocation to determine which cubbyhole to select when the keyboard was activated.
The dolphins seemed to expect certain behaviors from the trainers. When a human touched the key, the dolphins would swim ahead, then turn to make sure their trainer was following them to the right place.
Scientists don't know if the dolphin's interaction with humans is sophisticated communication or a conditioned response motivated by a reinforcer (food). It may be a long time, if ever, before we can speak "dolphin" and find out what's on their minds.
1. How do you communicate with your pet? How does your pet communicate
with you? What do you communicate about?
2. If you could speak dolphin language, what questions would you ask?
body language use of facial expressions, posture,
gestures, and other nonverbal communication
conditioned response first demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist. Dogs heard a bell when fed, teaching them to associate food with the sound of a bell. Eventually the dogs' response to the bell was to salivate in anticipation of food.
echolocation bouncing sound off objects to provide information about size, location, and movement of those objects
frequency the number of cycles or complete "waves" (sound, radio) per unit of time
ultrasound high frequency sound that humans are unable to hear
vocalization formation of sounds
Additional sources of information
Smell and Tell
Follow your nose to find the person wearing the same scent as you.
Many animal communication systems depend on matching scents or sounds to identify friends and enemies. Explore what it would be like to use your nose to find out who your friends and enemies are.
1. What factors could have affected the discovery process?
2. Is it easier for the new pairs to locate each other after learning to use their noses in the first session? Why is that the case?
Cut out pictures of faces that show different expressions. Mount each on a separate piece of poster board. Ask several friends, one at a time, to look at each and tell you what emotion they see. Record each person's answers. How do the answers compare? Did everyone see the same thing in each picture?
Use a dictionary of American Sign Language (ASL) to learn to communicate a short story. Ask a friend who doesn't know any ASL to watch you tell the story. Ask that person to write down what your story is about. Then teach your friend what you learned about ASL and try telling the story again. Did your friend understand it better?
Humans speak almost 6,000 different languages. Make a list of 10 important words or phrases and find out how to say them in five other languages. If you have friends who speak other languages, ask them (or their parents or grandparents) for help in pronouncing the words correctly.
The same sound produces different echoes in different locations. Try making the same set of noises (a whisper, a loud shout) in different places. You might try standing in a large room with a high ceiling, a bathtub or shower, outside next to a building, outside in the middle of a field, and in a car. What does the sound tell you about the environment?
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Made possible by a grant from 3M.
Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.