It has long been understood that dolphins are intelligent, social creatures, and that they have their own distinct language that humans can’t understand. Although we can distinguish the different sounds that dolphins make, and understand that each dolphin has a unique call, scientists face struggles when trying to study their communication, due to the difficulty in tracking which dolphin is making which sound and why. However, recently, psychologist and marine mammal scientist Diana Reiss and a group of biophysicists have built a ‘dolphin touchscreen’ in the form of a window into the wall of a pool at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The researchers project interactive progammes onto it, and optical sensing technology can detect when the window is being touched by the dolphins. The project was inspired by an experiment Reiss conducted in the 1980s with an electronic keyboard with unique symbols on each key. Each key made a dolphinesque whistle when touched, with the idea that dolphins could use the keyboard to make requests of their handlers. When listening to recordings, Reiss noticed that the dolphins were mimicking the sounds made by the keyboard and combining with their own unique sounds.

One of the programmes the team have developed is a dolphin version of ‘whack-a-mole’. In the game, fish swim across the scream and disappear when touched. Within seconds of the screen turning on, the scientists witnessed the dolphin approaching the screen and touching the fish with his melon, or forehead. Motivated by this success and with the 1980s experiment in mind, the team are now developing an app similar to the keyboard. Alongside this the team will use microphones embedded in the walls to record the sounds, and multiple cameras to track the locations of the dolphins. The combination of audio and visual data the team will be able to trace the sounds back to a particular point in the pool and thus a specific dolphin. Data-mining algorithms will then be used to look for patterns in this information. 

Psychology, Biology and Veterinary students should explore our understanding of animal intelligence and consciousness and how technology is allowing us greater insight into this. Physics students can consider how such technology may help us communicate with potential extre-terrestrial life forms as we continue to pursue space exploration. Computer Scientists and Mathematicians can investigate the nature of the programmes and technology used to pursue this research.

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