Big Question For 2012: Will We Talk to the Animals?

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(Image: AmyT)

This year, enormous strides have been made in understanding non-human animal vocalizations. But will we ever be able to hold meaningful conversations with another species, such that both sides understand each other?

Consider what we've learned about dolphins recently. Research a few months ago determined that dolphins talk like humans in terms of the physical process. Previously it was thought that many dolphin calls were just simple whistles, but the study found the sounds are produced by tissue vibrations analogous to the operation of vocal folds by humans.

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Acoustics engineer John Stuart Reid and Jack Kassewitz of the organization Speak Dolphin have created an instrument known as the CymaScope that reveals detailed structures within sounds, allowing their architecture to be studied pictorially.

Similar to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, the researchers may then be able to figure out the meaning of dolphin calls. In addition to the whistle-like sounds, dolphins produce chirps and click trains, suggesting they engage in very complex and sophisticated social interactions.

"There is strong evidence that dolphins are able to 'see' with sound, much like humans use ultrasound to see an unborn child in the mother's womb," Kassewitz told Discovery News. "The CymaScope provides our first glimpse into what the dolphins might be 'seeing' with their sounds."

We might have to use special equipment to reproduce such sounds, but if that's possible and the sounds are deciphered, meaningful communication with dolphins could be a reality.

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Recently we also told you about how kids understand dog barks. Children, in particular, seem to "get" dogs better than the rest of us do. Barks, however, aren't akin to words. They are more tied to emotional states. They do, however, contain some specific information.

(Image: ellierhu)

To fill in the conversational blanks with animals like dogs, horses, and cats, we all tap into other forms of communication, such as body language. Many of us are already enjoying dialogues with our favorite non-human animals, even if some degree of mystery remains.

I think one of the most promising areas of research is on non-human primate vocalizations. Animals such as chimpanzees communicate with each other in complex ways and some are skilled at understanding what we're saying. Some studies have also managed to decipher primate vocalizations, such as determining how bonobos communicate their thoughts about food.

In my view, a primitive communication system may unite virtually all mammals. It's taken for granted that we understand calls signifying danger, fear or contentment emitted by many animals. Hopefully future research will better define these vocalizations.

Who knows? We may learn more about ourselves and find out useful information. For example, not long ago we told you how chimpanzees self-medicate with food. They may know some things we don't about the healing properties of certain plants, insects and more.