Conversing with Dolphins: The Holy Grail of Interspecies Communication?

July 21, 2017 Toni Frohoff & Elizabeth Oriel

Toni Frohoff and Elizabeth Oriel teamed up to write about conversing with dolphins in the book, Biocommunication: Sign-Mediated Interactions between Cells and Organisms.

Below is the abstract and an excerpt from the chapter.

Toni Frohoff*Elizabeth Oriel

*TerraMar Research


Abstract: The scientist’s quest for communication with dolphins can be as fraught with mystery and mishaps as an archetypal search for the Holy Grail. At every turn, scientists encounter millennial-old, romantized notions about iconic dolphins teaming with logistical challenges and plodding methodologies struggling to keep pace with, and identify, even a singular, solid thread running through an intricate web of data. When it comes to dolphins, scientific paradigms merge with policy, politics, emotion, and ethics in stimulating, yet sometimes turbid, waters. Our search for clarity through meaningful analysis to adequately (let alone elegantly) explain our findings about dolphins can be both an enviable quest and an onerous duty. The mystery of dolphins continues to beckon us, from before Aristotle to modern-day, inspiring research that expands our concepts of who cetaceans are. We pursue a path beneath the sea, challenging ourselves to press more deeply against our own anthropocentric limits of biocommunication to connect with an aquatically alien, but similarly sentient, species…


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The lure of dolphins has created a somewhat unparalleled curiosity for humans to communicate with other, yet very different, species from our own. This grail quest to understand what dolphins and other non-humans are feeling, thinking, and communicating develops with more inclusive and holistic paradigms (Safina, 2015).  Cognitive ethology, Interspecies Collaborative Research, Interspecies Cohabitation Research (Oriel and Frohoff, 2015), and the breakthroughs along the linguistic/ethological border from scientists who build a common language across species, contribute to an equalizing research paradigm from which we transcend excessively anthropocentric models.

Our own human colonization leads to assumptions that inhibit possible entry points in communication with those of other cultures, regardless of species.

Yet the quest for this grail is hampered, as is the archetypal quest, by our human limitations (rather than those of our fellow species as was commonly presumed). In part, our own human colonization, as Kohn (2013) suggests, leads to assumptions that inhibit possible entry points in communication with those of other cultures, regardless of species. Therefore, studying communication in non-human animals through sociological and anthropological methodologies provides great promise (see Whitehead and Rendell, 2014; Herzing and Johnson, 2015). Yet we still need to be cautious about the cultural and species-centric reductionism that lingers not only in science, but also in our personal worldviews that impacts our cohabitation with other human cultures, let alone all life.

Drawing together these related but diverse topics — biocommunication, personhood, cohabitation, collaboration, even multispecies, and multigenerational indigenous understandings across species — they all contain multiple interfaces through which human and non-human animals connect. We have the opportunity to redefine not only animal nature in other species but also revisit and refine our own human–animal nature. Communicative connection points between species can all serve to build on a more thriving relationship between, and for, the benefit of humans and all other animals. Yet what we do with the grail of interspecies communication is up to us.

Image credit Fred Buyle.