Deciphering the language of dolphins

Dolphins are capable of many different forms of vocalisations. “It’s like listening to a foreign language,” said Dr Matthias Hoffmann-Kuhnt, a senior research fellow from the Acoustic Research Laboratory at the NUS Tropical Marine Science Institute.

Dr Hoffmann-Kuhnt, who has been studying bioacoustics and animal behaviour for 30 years, is working to crack the code to understanding the secret language of dolphins. In September 2022, he joined a two-week National Geographic expedition to Lanai, Maui and the Big Island in Hawaii. The expedition was done in collaboration with the Ocean Exploration Trust to collect acoustic data from a variety of dolphin species to help researchers understand their behaviour and the nature of dolphin society.

In order to record the acoustic data, Dr Hoffmann-Kuhnt and his team of NUS researchers developed their own underwater recording device known as the acoustic source position overlay device (Aspod). The Aspod has an underwater camera affixed to it, along with three underwater microphones known as hydrophones, which would allow scientists to trace the source of the sounds – often at high frequencies – to the dolphins making them.

Going forward, Dr Hoffmann-Kuhnt and his team hope to create a database to document the soundscape of dolphins, which would bring them a step closer to understanding their language and their associated behaviours. Tracking the vocalisations of dolphins over the long term can also provide some clues to the overall health of the ocean and its ecosystems.

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