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Season 12 | Episode 10

Hello

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(Photo Credit: きうこ)

It's hard to start a conversation with a stranger—especially when that stranger is, well, different. He doesn't share your customs, celebrate your holidays, watch your TV shows, or even speak your language. Plus he has a blowhole.

In this episode, we try to make contact with some of the strangest strangers on our little planet: dolphins. Producer Lynn Levy eavesdrops on some human-dolphin conversations, from a studio apartment in the Virgin Islands to a research vessel in the Bermuda Triangle.

Produced by:

Lynn Levy

Home Is Where Your Dolphin Is

In the 1960's, Margaret Howe had a very unusual roommate: a bottlenose dolphin named Peter.   

Comments [14]

What Do Dolphins Talk About?

Denise Herzing has been studying the same pod of wild dolphins for 30 years. But this year, things are different.

Comments [4]

Comments [41]

noneya from noneya

wow.....so interesting....

Sep. 26 2014 09:38 PM
H Jones from New York

Several sources indicate that Peter, the dolphin, committed suicide by ceasing to breathe after this experiment lost its funding and he was moved to a less ideal tank in Miami (without Margaret, of course). If an animal bonds with a particular person during an experiment, is there any ethical obligation to follow up with its well being after the experiment is over?

Sep. 23 2014 12:54 AM

Has anyone tried using pictures or symbols to communicate with dolphins? Know they have been trained to do things like finding something and such with symbols. Or maybe how they do with monkeys where there are shapes on a board that they could touch with their beaks and get the image on a screen. Guess it wouldn't be so good with wild dolphins perhaps... Great program though and thank you. Now how apologize for having slaughtered these amazing creatures to ‘eat’. Humans are a blight on this planet.

Sep. 10 2014 08:21 PM
Julie from Ojai, CA

I was stunned by the fact that Radiolab allowed a full minute of (almost) silence during this episode to illustrate the dolphin being affectionate and falling to the floor then coming up to breathe. Incredibly effective use of silence that painted a vivid picture in my mind. Wonderful episode.

Sep. 09 2014 12:58 PM
CB from Los Angeles

Do most of the commenters realize the Lilly experiment took place 50 years ago? It's not like this happened last week. The story is interesting because of the era in which it occurred. We've come a long way since then, both scientifically and ethically. A lot of strange things happened in the 50s and 60s in the name of science. This is one of those stories.

As an aside, the reason that Lilly was doing the language experiments, in the first place, was to try to convince the world that dolphins were sentient beings in order to prevent their slaughter. While he may have been severely misguided in his attempts, he was actually trying to find a way to protect the species.

Sep. 08 2014 09:51 PM
your internet boss from Chicago, IL

Those complaining about Dolphins learning English, is the episode TL;DL ? The third segment of the show talks about a researcher who is trying to communicate with Dolphins using the Dolphin's own squeaks and whistles. Maybe listen to the whole episode before sparying venom on us all.

Sure, teaching a Dolphin English is perhaps not the most inspired idea, but it is a starting point and remember that this chapter takes place way back in the 60s. On the cosmic scale 50+ years is a stupid small blip, but in terms how much our little species is starting to understand the world, it might as well have been the dark ages.

Sheesh, I should have never read the comments first. It almost ruined a delightful episode of RL for me.

Sep. 08 2014 04:50 PM
JFS_II from Toronto ON

Why is it that we try to teach an animal without vocal words and a tongue/mouth like ours to try and speak our language? Why not approach it from the idea of - what sounds can we BOTH make? Then attempt to create a rudimentary language with that?

Sep. 08 2014 11:42 AM
j

Really wish to know what happened to the dolphin of the first show. Captivity of these noble creatures is abusive. Anyone working on learning their language rather than forcing these creatures to learn ours?

Sep. 06 2014 12:26 PM
Christopher

Agreed, the idea of trying to get a dolphin to speak human words, especially the English language is utter stupidity. If anything, dolphin communication is far more interesting than our dialect.

Sep. 05 2014 08:53 AM
Chris from New York, NY

What a travesty this episode was. A dolphin, learning english, crammed in an apartment. Did the producers think about what sort of myopic self-indulgent view one must have to think they could teach a dolphin to speak english? Forgetting what maybe construed as cruelty for a second, was any real actual science done?

Sep. 03 2014 09:43 AM
Cali Lili™ Cali Lili Indies™ from venice beach, los angeles

OMG i am SOOOOOO happy to hear this episode .... i have always been in LOVE with dolphins and i have recently discovered radiolab ... i wasn't able to listen yesterday and really was looking forward to the podcast ...but now that i am listening to this amazing story ... and i know a bit of it from the movie "day of the dolphin"??? but i am in heaven ... Thanks for this episode and ur gr8 work !!! back to listening ... : )))))

Sep. 01 2014 09:27 PM
Trent

My biggest question after listening to this is where did the dolphin semen go? Is she living with every sticky thing that comes out of that dolphin around her ankles or did they have some kind of filtration system in the apartment?

Sep. 01 2014 12:42 PM
Guy from GA

Has anyone tried magnetic imaging of dolphin brains to find out what might be occuring while speech is going on?

Aug. 31 2014 06:30 PM
moo

Oh my God. Absolutely crazy story. Thank you so much for sharing, radiolab.

Aug. 31 2014 01:43 PM
dvekaki from on the couch

no way, lily, ofcourse u top it off robert

Aug. 31 2014 01:09 PM
Ryn from Ohio

I disagree with trying to teach animals our langauge. It feels arrogant that humans would try to make a animal (with thier own unique way of communicating) speak English. Attempting to speak another animals language seems mor approperate and kinder. i also in general disagree with the whole concept of Zoos and animals on display for enertainment. If you want to see wild animals, visit a national park. Thanks for letting us comment! I usually love the show!

Aug. 29 2014 06:13 PM
Ulises from London

Poor Peter. This episode reminds me of Lucy. The cruelty of "scientists" is mind blowing. You guys sound a little too excited when talking about this case. Please consider reflecting on the ethics of that... not on the surface, or for the sake of "science."

Aug. 29 2014 04:52 AM
EmilyDickinson from Seattle

Fascinating, BUT! We HAVE a Dr Dolittle; we HAVE had 2-way communication with wild animals (albeit, not in "the wild.") We HAVE had this species breakthrough for some 40 YEARS!!!! Where is mention of ALEX!!!!! the African Gray PARROT who was taught to speak meaningfully by Irene Pepperberg, PhD HARVARD UNIVERSITY [Theoretical Chemistry]. It amazes me that people don't know ABOUT ALEX; let alone many "bird people haven't heard of him; let alone "animal language" researchers. It ASTOUNDS ME when ALEX and Dr. Pepperberg's incredible achievements are not even recognized. Many parrots can mimic human sounds with ease; why make it difficult by using dolphins, charming as they are?. Pepperberg devised a model-rival system to teach Alex MEANINGFUL human speech and used his vocabulary to test his intelligence. Check it out! If you find this dolphin broadcast interesting, you will be stunned by ALEX. ALEX was so famous that when he died his obit appeared in national and international!! newspapers and magazines: NYTimes, Wall St Journal, you get the picture. Pepperberg had an uphill battle proving that parrots are not just mimics, not virtual tape recorders. She succeeded MAGNIFICENTLY, SCIENTIFICALLY. PLEASE, HOW CAN WE/YOU FORGET ALEX????? He already did it.

Aug. 28 2014 12:33 AM

A really disappointing episode. No factual, science-based balance to frame these so-called experiments for what they really were – pseudo-scientific claptrap.

Aug. 27 2014 04:04 PM
Steve from Long Beach

Oh man, you guys missed your chance. During the closing answering machine acknowledgment/introductions, you should have had one or more of the boat crew identify themselves with their dolphin squeak names. I would have liked to have heard that. (And if any dolphins were listening in to the podcast...; come on, get inclusive!)

Aug. 25 2014 07:26 PM

First, thank you for treating Ms. Lovatt and her prior work with dignity and focus on her larger effort. Even in these comments, where one might least expect it, there is juvenile snark, misplaced indignation and outright misappropriation.
Second, this is a fascinating area of research and I hope that you will at some point do a follow-up to see what progress may have been made even if it is likely to be 'none' or 'incremental'.

Aug. 25 2014 01:52 PM
tunie from maui

Denise Herzig should contact animal communicator Anna Breytenbach.

Aug. 25 2014 08:13 AM
sepiae from the gunky oceans

That was a wonderful one, and as always brilliantly made.
I was smiling all the way through the 2nd story.

Aug. 25 2014 05:22 AM
chris from Murray, KY

Very happy to hear this story tonight. In retort to Ben Rogers from Australia, I'm not sure that we are desperate as much as curious. This type of communication could provide a great understanding to the evolution of language and the barriers we have to understanding how to actually coexist with other cohabitants of this planet. I think this research is clunky but wonderful and inspiring.

Aug. 24 2014 10:30 PM
Ben Rogers from Australia

Depressing to think that some people are so desperate to communicate that they turn to animals to anthropomorphize their way of life.

Be thankful that dolphins don't talk and tell you to "get a life"

Aug. 24 2014 08:00 PM
joe from New York, NY

Is it just me or did anyone else have Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the back of their mind while listening to this?

"So long and thanks for all the fish!"

Aug. 24 2014 07:30 PM
lulu

Could we have more information about what happened to Peter? Thank you so much. I loved the story.

Aug. 24 2014 07:20 PM
Teena

I would have liked a warning that some content may not be appropriate for children. I was listening with my 6 year old and was surprised by the sudden discussion of sex with dolphins.

Aug. 24 2014 07:17 PM

this was painful to listen to...no awareness of the rights of intelligent sentient beings. I had to stop listening to this unacknowledged, completely clueless ANIMAL ABUSE

Aug. 24 2014 03:00 PM
davey from everett wa

Hi radiolabrians,
I am not entirely certain but I read some of lily's writings on cetacians and most all of his psychedelic adventure writing about 25 yrs ago. As I recall the dolphins had a much more room than just the small apartment. The apartment was connected to the an enclosed part of the ocean. In lilys defense, he did come to realize the cruelty of captivity and he did release the dolphins his program was holding.

There is another issue I really want to raise though. I may have received this idea from someone else, but it appears to be if not original, at least greatly underappreciated: Dolphins communicate and, in a very real sense, see with sound. This being the case, a representational use of sound would be clunky and unlikely. It is more likely that their vocalizations create imagery in a less mediated way. They may manifest thoughts and feelings as sensory objects of perception in a way that is very hard for us to even imagine. This is what I would guess they use their vocal abilities and massive brains for. Also, I believe their very large cortical regions are much more dedicated to processing emotional experience. This would also argue for a very different kind of "language". One thing seems certain. Evolutionary forces would not favor the existence of energetically expensive higher brain function if they weren't using it!

Aug. 23 2014 10:30 PM
dtich from hell-a

great piece lynn! been meaning for years to find out whatever happened with all that dolphin research.. every time i see 2010 (the movie) it reminds me.. i've done a lot of swimming with dolphins myself and this ep really made me wanna get back out there... great work, as always. thanks!

Aug. 23 2014 04:12 PM
J from New Mexico

This was a great episode! Spending a little more time with each episode was a great was to go deeper with the content. Such interesting stories, and a great blend of curiosity and science! Thanks Radiolab!

Aug. 23 2014 01:59 PM
Frederico

Should we have any hesitation to have sex with Dolphins? Who would not have sex with someone you have lived with for the last 9mos if you like them in a special way? Someone you know that well. The key is feeling & knowing inside that you love them. It's really not important whether you have the same anatomy or genealogy. C'mon people, wake up! Its just not that big of a deal. If you are having a spiritual connection and forgetting about your body, its really not an issue.

Aug. 23 2014 08:51 AM
Andrew from Canada

i didnt even know dolphins were capable of understand human speech. This story was amazing keep up the good work radio lab!

Aug. 23 2014 01:56 AM
Janie from Baltimore

Hate hearing about animal experiments/animal exploitation/animal manipulation. So cruel. Had to stop listening. Radiolab is getting so disappointing.

Aug. 23 2014 12:06 AM
hollie from Minneapolis, MN

Why do "scientists" think that ANY animal will act or learn normally in anything other than their natural habitat? Of course this dolphin was interested in her, of course he watched himself for hours in a mirror, of course he was horny....poor, intelligent thing! Ever see an animal in isolation rocking back and forth? They're so BORED! Oh well, humans "will never learn" yet we have so much to learn. Especially from animals.

Aug. 22 2014 03:44 PM
alphasci

Well that got weird for a little bit...

Aug. 22 2014 02:06 PM

If Koko can do it, why not Flipper?

Aug. 22 2014 11:53 AM
caroline

Just like humans to cram a 10foot dolphin in a small apt to force it to speak english....disgusting

Aug. 22 2014 09:35 AM
Stacy

Language is not just propositional. Even if we take as given that dolphins have "language" ) for the sake of argument), dolphins may not in fact have the social ritual of greeting or use sounds to refer to objects. A dolphin "conversation" may be in a form unintelligible to us as conversation because they don't have an adjacency pair part structure (A says, then B says, then A says...) but something entirely different. Just think when you go to a different country or region of the US, how it is permissible and makes sense to talk to people can be jarringly different. Also since language is tied up with cognition (see linguistic relativity), dolphins probably don't process the world in the same way humans do. Anyway, all this to say that I doubt dolphins and humans will ever have a conversation about scarves. The complexity of this undertaking having nothing to do with amount of words per sentence or the concrete ness of subject matter, rather the reshaping of a social and cognitive disposition.

Aug. 22 2014 02:29 AM
Andrew Banas from Buffalo New York

The old audio sounds kind of edited...? Especially with the '1...2...3!' bit.

Aug. 22 2014 12:47 AM

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