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Want to talk to a dolphin? Just whistle

Researcher Ken Marten shows a ball to Maui the dolphin
Researcher Ken Marten shows a ball to Maui the dolphin  

From Ann Kellan
CNN Technology Correspondent

(CNN) -- New research in Hawaii is making strides in developing a language that will allow humans and dolphins to communicate, based on the clicks and whistles that comprise the foundation of "dolphin-speak."

A bottlenose dolphin named Maui has learned to play a computer game that is helping scientists create a unique language they hope both humans and dolphins will understand.

Words in this new language are whistled. Dolphins typically whistle to each other underwater, through a special structure just beneath their blow holes.

Researchers say the sounds have meaning. For example, each dolphin learns its own signature whistle from its mom. So in human terms, when they greet each other, they include not just a "hello" but their name as well.

Ken Marten and his team at Earthtrust and Sea Life Park Research laboratory in Hawaii want to better understand how dolphins communicate.

"The rest of my career is dedicated to talking to these guys, so I guess you could call me Dr. Dolittle now," Marten said.

After studying dolphin whistles, Marten invented distinct whistles for various objects with which the dolphins were familiar.

"So I'll hold up a ball and I'll play the (whistle) word for ball," he said, then wait and hope the dolphin will repeat the whistle word for ball.

It can take awhile. Marten even has a little puppet dolphin, the teacher's pet so to speak, to entice the dolphin to whistle back.

The dolphins never repeat the humans' exact whistle word, but create their own variation, Marten said. The researchers quickly adapt.

"I'm actually using Maui's pronunciation," Marten said.

To add some fun, researchers developed a special underwater touch screen to give dolphins another way to demonstrate when they recognize a whistle. For example, Marten displays four objects on the screen, then sounds the whistle word for bucket.

If the dolphin touches the bucket on the screen, the bucket comes up full screen and dances around. Dolphins apparently like the routine.

Marten believes dolphins are learning, but the process is slow. Researchers hope by creating a common language, they'll gain insight to how the fun-loving mammals think.

• Earthtrust - Wildlife Conservation Worldwide

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