Cetacean Communication

From: Peter M Scheifele (acousticp2@juno.com)
Date: Wed Mar 21 2001 - 00:25:39 EST

Hi Brandi

OK then, let's give these questions a go...

> 1.What are the most recent developments in the research on cetacean
> communication(all of my resources so far have been from books, and
> they are fairly outdated)?

There is a large body of work being done on the songs of the Humpback
Whale and some hypothesizing about the phonations of the Blue Whale being
used for low frequency echolocation and navigation. One of my current
research projects has to do with identifying the phonations of the Beluga
and creating an articulation index to use as a metric for hearing
abilities in noise.

> 2.What do you think the benefits of talking with cetaceans would be?

I'm not really sure. I don't necessarily believe that we can converse in
a meaningful way for two reasons:
1- I don't know that cetaceans actually have "language" and
2- teaching them to respond to English (which doesn't tell us anything
about truly what they think because we are from different environments
with no common "language") doesn't tell us very much.
Having said this it would be nice to know what they know were it
possible. You might want to read "Lads Before the Wind" by Karen Pryor
in this regard. I also wonder whether their phonations can be equated
with phonetical use and phonemes. Is true syntax possible? Is
propositional speech possible? If there is a possibility of having a
large lexicon where is the seat of language in their brain and can they
manipulate it in similar fashion to humans? If this is so, can a
cetacean becom aphasic and what are the consequences?

> 3.Do you think that the government is spending enough money so that
> this project may be accomplished?

I don't know that the government is spending anything on this kind of
work. Certainly ONR (Office of Naval Research) which is one of the
primary marine mammal research organizationsin this field, is not. In
the early 80's as a naval researcher I taught two dolphins some Morse
Code (using two different frequencies as dots and dashes). Then I
assigned each letter to a noun or verb the intent being to allow me and
them to put together rudimentary sentences. Syntax is tough this way and
the project died early on. I believe it could be done though. Perhaps
binary numbers would be better then letter to use.

> 4.Do you think that the research that was done by Dr. John C. Lilly
> is valid?

John Lilly's very early work was credible in my estimation however, he
soon crossed the line of valid substantive research after which his
research was discredited. I have his books and the early ones are not

Does this help so far? Feel free to ask as many more questions as you
like. This is a favourite topic of mine next to cetacean audiology!
Dr. Pete

Peter M."Skip" Scheifele LCDR USN (Ret.)
Director of Bioacoustic Research, University of Connecticut NURC NA&GL
(Voice) 860-405-9103/9121; acousticp2@juno.com;

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