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Not talk (or faux-talk), no. But communicate, yes.

Mooing, bleating, trumpeting–we all know animal sounds. Science wonders whether they carry meaning like human words. As a kid, my imagination (fueled in part by cartoons and books) let me hold conversations with dogs and gorillas and any other animal I wanted to talk to. I’ve noticed that joy rekindled as I’ve read some of the research on whale and dolphin language and intelligence.

On the website SpeakDolphin, I’ve read a lot of exciting ideas and experiments regarding dolphin communication. A simple way to try communicating with dolphins is recording the sounds they use when researchers present them with an object (say, a ball), then playing those sounds back and seeing if it communicates ball to other dolphins. From New Scientist:

Working from an aquarium in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, Jack Kassewitz, of Miami-based SpeakDolphin, has sealed an iPad in a waterproof case and placed it in a tank that houses a 2-year-old bottlenose dolphin named Merlin. Merlin has learned to identify eight separate physical objects and taps the matching image on the iPad screen whenever he is shown one of them.

Kassewitz also uses microphones and an iPad oscilloscope app called SignalScope to capture the sounds that Merlin makes when he looks at the objects. Kassewitz describes the results as “sound pictures” similar to ultrasound scans, each containing a representation of the object itself. When replayed, other dolphins are able to use the sounds to identify the objects.

Kassewitz is now working with other researchers to develop a model of dolphin language which he hopes will one day let humans communicate with them.

It seems communication is important to dolphins.

Concerning general intelligence, I couldn’t stop reading about dolphins playing games with humans. You can even watch.

To top it all off, there are a lot of interesting ideas about primate intelligence too.

Last week there was an adorable sleepy sun bear to watch.

I recently heard about moon bears, which are just as interesting to see. The video where I saw them is not cute or cheery, though, but rather takes a look at bile harvesting (no joke!). Ultimately, it raises questions about the rights of animals.

When the animal in question is more like us, I think people are more inclined to feel for it. Primates are the usual subjects in discussions of animal rights. No one can deny their humanlikeness.

At the same time, plenty of us are meat eaters. Is it a breach of animals’ rights to feed on them? If not all the time, then what treatment and consideration do animals deserve when we’re using them for food?

You could philosophize all day about where to pragmatically draw the line, but an article discussing chimpanzees boils it down to the bottom line:

Should they [chimpanzees of dwindling numbers] be mourned as animals, or people?

Perhaps semantics are irrelevant.

“This is a tragedy, for lack of a better word,” said Taglialatela.

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I’ve started down the internet hyperlink rabbit trail of research on animal communication, which stirs up questions about animal rights that are more complex and more interesting. You get into animal intelligence, the question of what distinguishes humans from other species, and even emotions? In a week, I’m going to post about that.

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