The rubbery chirps and clicks of dolphin dialect continue to fascinate scientists though decades of animal behavior research. The instrumentation that biologists use to analyze cetacean sound production range from the traditional to the surreal. Dolphin language studies typically bring to mind microphones and waveforms. British psychonaut John C. Lilly instead dedicated the second floor of a residence in St. Thomas to host both human and dolphin tenants. Lilly sealed the walls with plaster and filled the space with three feet of water so that biologist Margaret Lovatt could work alongside and chat with her dolphin, Peter. The Future Communications Lab was shut down in six months due to Lilly’s “cavalier attitude towards the dolphin’s welfare.”
Lilly’s unconventional set-up in the 1960s has since inspired researchers to construct eccentric instruments that describe dolphin echolocation in mathematical terms. Pack et al in 2002 constructed an anechoic box of redwood slats and a cloudy sheet of plexiglass. The Honolulu-based team placed a variety of PVC sculptures that the animals could inspect through echolocation but were hidden from eyesight. They concluded that dolphins use sound production to form a global image of an object, rather than piecing it together through local features.
These niche discoveries in the field of dolphin behavior actually create interplay between seemingly disparate academic fields. Computer scientists at the Iran School of Civil Engineering optimized the form of steel scaffolding using a dolphin echolocation algorithm. They outlined a mathematical model from cetacean navigation techniques and used it minimize the weight of truss structures, which are massive lattices that resemble lunar landing capsules. Our obsession with dolphin echolocation has also shifted the course of environmental lawmakers. A team in Kona Hawaii monitored a colony of dolphins using underwater acoustics and determined that boats and machinery disturbed normal social interaction. They are using this knowledge to back public policy, outlining a minimum distance between humans and dolphins. To gather and model data on dolphin calls is to describe animal language in human terms. This initiative is at once self-important and empathetic. We claim another animal’s language as our own, but we use the translation to design technology for the animal’s protection.