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Visiting Scientist Details the Language of Dolphins


June 13, 2007 — Aristotle had it right, but it took the better part of the next 2,200 years or so for the rest of us to catch on: Dolphins speak. So do whales.
A visiting scientist brought the latest information about dolphin communication to UVI Wednesday, extending the observations of Aristotle into the modern realm.
In his "Historia Animalium" — or "The History of Animals" to the rest of us — the philosopher says, "The voice of the dolphin in the air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with the consonants."
This observation was disdained by 19th-century biologists investigating dolphins as biological objects in the sea. Until new observations were made in 1956, Aristotle's statement was a puzzle attributed to mythology.
Visiting scientist Shane Guan, who spoke Wednesday afternoon as part of the University of the Virgin Islands VI-EPSCoR 2006-2007 Seminar Series, is all about the scientific process, not mythology. Though he couldn't confirm the dolphin's problems with consonants, he offered a wealth of information about the world of underwater communication.
VI-EPSCoR is an acronym for the Virgin Islands Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. It promotes the development of the territory’s science and technology resources.
Guan talked about the acoustic behavior of dolphins and whales to a roomful of UVI students, instructors and a few curious community members, showing a video to illustrate his observations. He was visiting St. Thomas for the day aboard the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas. The ship is equipped with a high-tech atmospheric and oceanographic laboratory, a joint project of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Royal Caribbean. They have joined forces in an unprecedented collaboration to use state-of-the-art technology to study the ocean and atmosphere, and to provide an exciting new venue to increase the public's awareness and understanding of our planet.
This collaboration is supported with continuing contributions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Southeast Atlantic Coastal Ocean Observing System (SEACOOS).
Guan, who looks younger than his 40 years, is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fishery biologist, whose heart lies in what goes on under the sea when mammals talk.
Dolphins, he says, like to play in their communicating, but their underwater sonar is essential in helping them to navigate unknown waters: They bounce sounds to track their course.
They communicate in clicks and whistles, sometimes simultaneously. The intriguing sounds rang out in the small classroom as Guan played a video of his research.
They don't sound like the sounds of the humpback whales, which have been recorded popularly for years. Whales have a much larger repertoire, but also much more girth from which to rumble. Whales speak in groans, squeals, blips, chirps moans, thumps, pulses and grunts, Guan said.
Their notes could perhaps even make them the forerunners of rock and roll music, he said, showing a scale, which, indeed, could be early Elvis. Give or take.
Even though dolphins swim in water, they must breathe air like other mammals. About every two minutes, the animal has to come up for air. This would account for Aristotle's "voice of dolphins in the air." Still, they can dive more than 300 meters (1000 feet) below the water surface (with a speed of up to 40 kilometers per hour, or 25 miles per hour) and hold their breath for several minutes.
And they love to play. A few weeks ago, Colette Monroe, who works at the Legislature and lives on Water Island, was putting to work in her Boston Whaler when she found herself surrounded by the friendly creatures. "I just killed the motor and watched them circle the boat," she said. "And they were smiling at me. Where else can you live and have a commuting experience like that?"
St. Thomas got a brief mention when Guan cited some of the research of the late John D. Lilly. He created the Communication Research Institute — commonly known then as the "Dolphin House" — on the island in the late 1950s. His career took a turn, with Lilly becoming something of a mix between scientist, mystic and writer. He published 19 books in all, including The Centre of the Cyclone, which describes his LSD experiences, and Man and Dolphin and The Mind of the Dolphin, which describe his work with dolphins.
Paul Butler-Natlin, EPSCoR planning, monitoring and evaluation director, was pleased at Wednesday's turnout. "One of our goals," he said, "is to connect EPSCoR with the community."
Gail Garrison represented that goal. "I've always been interested in the sea," she said, "ever since I was a child. I just watched a turtle hatching, and this presentation was so interesting."
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