This project will address central questions in dolphin communication research by aggressively attacking the key technical issues such as the attribution problem with state-of-the-art computational neuroscience and statistical physics methods. The project will move quantitative high-throughput studies, currently tied to the bench, into field research of wild animals. This interdisciplinary study is collaboration between the labs of animal cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss and physicist and computational neuroscientist Marcelo Magnasco. One of the broader impacts of the project, the aquarium studies are particularly conducive to outreach efforts since the dolphin related activities take place in an open amphitheater environment and the exhibit has changed from dolphin shows to more educational demonstrations about animal care, behavior, and conservation. The research activities will take place concurrently with visits of the public and field trips of schoolchildren and therefore, the research endeavor is being communicated to the public in real time. Virtually all the activities proposed can, with modest effort and cost, be made into an open exhibit at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, instructing visiting schoolchildren on the research process and on collaborative research across scientific boundaries. The field trips to the research sites are organized jointly with undergraduate and graduate courses in field research for Hunter College students and are excellent opportunities to showcase and engage actual cutting edge research to these students.

The cognitive and communication capabilities of dolphins are legendary. Untangling the legends into a body of rigorous science has been a slow process fraught with many pitfalls; rigorous work in the last two decades has painted a rather more nuanced picture than the legends. While dolphins do indeed have amazing cognitive abilities, their natural conspecific communication in the wild remains enigmatic, with ongoing debates as to the nature of many elements of their vocal repertoire and the complexity of their communication overall. The key technical problems have been the laboriousness of the attribution problem, the assignment of which animal emitted which vocalization, the lack of automated behavior analysis methods, and finally the linking of attributed vocalizations to specific behaviors. Because we currently cannot automatically triangulate and track their voices underwater there are no extant corpora of dolphin vocalizations: what have been studied are mostly isolated calls, as opposed to "conversations". In the last decade, studies in songbirds and rodents have demonstrated the power of high-throughput setups in which a large number of animals are studied through automated means. The overarching aim of this project is to extend these high-throughput settings to dolphin communication studies, in captivity and in the wild, and develop, for this far more difficult case, the relevant automated audio and video analysis tools to handle the huge amount of data generated. There are two specific activities: first, the PIs will study learning and free use of a synthetic language and second record from multiple vantage points and then computationally analyze natural dolphin behavior in the wild, both during natural behavior in pods as well as during highly circumscribed, specific behaviors such as bowriding. The corpora of vocalizations generated will be analyzed computationally to establish whether wild dolphins do have a rich-enough "language", as opposed to a repertoire of calls.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Physics (PHY)
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Krastan Blagoev
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Rockefeller University
New York
United States
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