Dolphin Mental Abilities Paper

by Kenneth W. LeVasseur <>


In 1964, Dwight "Wayne" Batteau began research into the possibilities of developing a Man/Dolphin Communicator. The pioneering studies began with a male bottlenosed dolphin named Dash, a preliminary research into the feasibility of producing man-to-dolphin and dolphin-to-man translators (electronic devices allowing interspecies communications with whistles by translating spoken vowels into whistle contours and vice-versa). When the experiment was moved to Hawaii in 1966, Dash was renamed Maui. Maui was required to respond to various electronically generated whistle commands. Another bottlenosed dolphin named Dopey was added in 1966 to find out to what extent secondary cues of the signals were involved in the behavior definitions and how to remove them. Also tested was whether the dolphins would respond differently to different "word" orders. When Dopey was moved to Hawaii in 1966 with Maui her name was changed to Puka.

The final phase of the experiment began in December, 1966, after the move to Hawaii. Unfortunately, Wayne Batteau drowned during a morning swim on October 26, 1967, the day the dolphins were to be moved from Coconut Island (in Kaneohe) to Oceanic Institute next to Sea Life Park (in Waimanalo, both on the windward side of Oahu). The project was supposedly ended in December 1967. The death of Dr. Batteau cut short what was the first established interspecies communication demonstration. The "final" report concluded that:

" . . . the observation and discussion . . . indicate that a basis for the development of a language between man an dolphin has been established. The continuing work will be directed towards extension of vocabulary with emphasis on vocal rather than gross body responses and towards inclusion of the trainer as a responding element in the communicating system."

In other words, the continuing work would allow acoustic two-way communications between man and dolphin using whistles. For some reason, Navy officials decided not to "officially" proceed with the next step. There is a P. R. Markey final report dated 1969 (contract #N66001-69-C-0819, U. S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center) that has not been acquired and is not listed in the Navy dolphin program's unclassified or publicly acknowledged classified bibliography, but reference to it in Rene Guy-Busnel's monograph Whistled Languages (1976) can lead one to believe that further work was done on the dolphin's ability to duplicate complex whistles as measured with an oscilloscope or possibly Batteau's "classified" device, the transphonometer. P. R. Markey was made principal investigator of the project after Batteau's death.

The question here is whether the Navy is communicating with dolphins using a device like Batteau's or not. Some research on dolphin communication by Louis Herman since Batteau's shows that dolphins possess linguistic skills, (Herman et. al. 1984, 1985, Herman 1980, 1986, 1987, 1990). Herman's research does not allow dolphins to produce language, only to demonstrate receptive competencies. Since the Navy began funding Herman's work in 1985, Herman has become adamant that his dolphins will not "talk" back. Earlier research by Richards et al., 1984, (Richards, 1986), demonstrated that dolphins could communicate back using whistles. Should this supposition about the Navy classifying their dolphin program to hide that they are communicating with dolphins be verified, then a great disservice has been done to philosophers and scientists who would like to question the mind in a non-human brain the size of humans or larger. This disservice would extend to the American people who support these scientists and philosophers.

An indication of how Navy researchers officially portray Batteau's project is provided by the Navy's senior dolphin researcher, Forrest G. Wood in his 1973 (revised 1975) book, Marine Mammals and Man: The Navy's Porpoises and Sea Lions. Wood summed up Batteau's work with Puka and Maui on page 113 as "damaging to the concept that dolphins have the linguistic comprehension and flexibility that proponents of their intelligence and language capability believed they had." Further investigation into the actual Batteau and Markey report (Batteau and Markey 1967) and assessment of Wood's arguments (Wood 1973, 1975) reveal that Wood's summary is based on only a few sessions where Puka was asked, among other tasks, to perform two tasks on whistled cues for which she had never been trained. These tasks were also only exploratory tests. To add to the suspicion, these tests were performed on the day of Batteau's death, right before the dolphins were to be transported to Oceanic Institute at Sea Life Park. One task Puka performed correctly; the second task, a cue to raise her tail flukes out of the water, resulted in a tail slap, where the tail fluke is raised out of the water momentarily and then is slapped on the surface. Oddly enough, the tail slap has been known as a demonstration of dolphin "anger" since dolphins were first observed in captivity in the 1930s. Such behavior can be expected from a dolphin being asked to perform a task for a food reward on cue for which it had never been trained. Difficulties with the temperament of these captive dolphins resulted in the placing of protective cages around the underwater speakers to protect them from the dolphins' aggressions (p. 64, Batteau and Markey, 1967).

A related explanation of the tail-slap response is that possibly Puka was combining her response to the task, the tail raising, with her displeasure over being asked to perform an act for which she had never been trained, the slap. Such creative performances are seen with chimpanzees and gorillas in American sign language experiments and in Karen Pryor's Creative Porpoise experiment (described later). Whether the performance is considered correct or wrong is a difficult judgment call by the trainer.

Wood expresses his concerns with the experiment and it objective by saying on page 112 of his book:

"In the end, the real significance of this project lay not in what the animals learned to do,, but in their apparent failure to understand that the game involved nothing more than a trained response to an arbitrary command."

It is difficult to comprehend Wood's reasoning in this interpretation. First of all the experiment provided no means, except within the assumptions of the experimenter, for the dolphin to demonstrate understanding other than through correct performance, which the dolphins did very well. Second, this "game", with arbitrary commands for the trained dolphins to perform correctly in order to be fed, was designed and controlled by humans. Wood then cites an example of sequential tasks (a "new" exploratory concept) in which the dolphin performed the first task rather than the second task or both tasks. Also, he explains how switching props resulted in confusion. Of course, asking a human subject to smoke a pencil or write with a cigarette could also be expected to result in confusion. [The original report by Batteau and Markey (1967) refers these tests in table 4-11 and in the Discussion, p. 82-84]

What Wood fails to recognize is that this experiment was a proof that Batteau's whistle/word approach to linguistic communication between dolphin and man was possible. This is all that Batteau was contracted to show and this is stated specifically in the conclusion - once again,

". . . a basis for the development of a language between man and dolphin has been established." Batteau does not say that he had developed the language, only the basis for the language and Batteau did demonstrate that concept. All of Wood's criticisms of the experiment concern problems recognized by Batteau in his report and deferred for further study, but Batteau died before the work could be performed and the Navy literally wasted no time in trying to discredit the research. In fact, the conditions under which these probe tests were conducted make the Navy's effort look like sabotage. In the discussion of Batteau's and Markey's report on the research, Batteau says about one of the problems (p. 83):

"A more rigorously controlled and detailed analysis of the error producing confusions is indicated as the observations acquired within this study are not sufficient for generalized conclusions."

It is obvious from reading the report that the Batteau experiment was an approach that sought to demonstrate the many positive aspects of the Batteau whistle/word translator. So long as the problems created by any confusion on the part of the dolphins did not detract from these many proofs of feasibility, the study achieved its goals. Solving these problems merely meant further work and analysis.

These "confusion" problems were small compared to demonstrating that:

  1. the devices do convert words to whistles and effectively communicate commands to the dolphins,
  2. the dolphins can accurately repeat these whistles,
  3. more than one device can be used at the same time,
  4. communication is effective at a distance from the handler (at least 75 yards),
  5. performances were consistent within the learning set,
  6. proprioceptive preferences in responses could be overcome,
  7. responses could be modified in the direction of increasing generality indicating an independence of points within the correct response set,
  8. the dolphins would respond correctly to minimally different behavior evoking frequency changes (abbreviated whistles),
  9. behaviors could be elicited from the dolphins independent of the location of the starting point,
  10. responses to sequences of up to six commands were possible at high confidence levels when behavior is stable.

The problems described by Batteau, and exaggerated by Wood, are normally seen in children during the early stages of language acquisition. These basic problems are solved as linguistic rules are learned, something the dolphins were never allowed to do in public because the study was "officially" stopped after the program was classified.

There were reported difficulties with the development of Batteau's dolphin-to-man translator, and it was supposedly sent back to the drawing board. We do not know what has happened to the device, because the Navy "claimed" the continuing research was abandoned with the obvious exception of Markey's 1969 work. All contracts and schematics for the device have since been "lost" by the Navy, and hence unavailable for inspection. The technical manuals for the devices used in the experiment were supposed to be Appendix A and B for the Batteau and Markey 1967 report but have been deleted in violation of Freedom of Information Act rules and requests by the public.

Related Research

In the light of more recent research (Herman 1980, 1986, 1987, 1990; Herman et, al. 1984, 1985; Richards, 1986; Richards et. al., 1984) into dolphin comprehension of an elaborate command communication system, Wood's statement about Batteau's experiment being "damaging to the concept that dolphins have the linguistic comprehension and flexibility that proponents of their intelligence and language capability believed they had" is clearly mistaken. Dolphin performance in these recent communication experiments (Herman 1980, 1986, 1987, 1990; Herman et, al. 1984, 1985; Richards, 1986; Richards et. al. 1984) meet or exceed most of the "proponents" optimistic views, and show no indications of declining performance or linguistic limitations. These experiments do not use whistles as information carriers, as in the Batteau experiment, nor do they allow the dolphin to communicate back acoustically, yet the newer experiments exceed the performance of the Batteau dolphins by virtue of the fact that they have been going on for much longer.

In terms of language receptive competencies, Herman and his associates have shown dolphins capable of:

In 1967, the year of Batteau's death, and prior to the completion of Batteau's project in December, the Navy classified it's dolphin program. Taken alone, Wood's comments might be seen as just "mistaken" opinion, but in his position as chief scientist in a classified dolphin program, there is always the possibility that his opinions may be deliberate misinformation.

Rene-Guy Busnel in his monograph Whistled Languages (1976), comments on the principles discussed here. The quotes are taken in order and the pages are indicated.

(page 100)

" . . . more important is the fact that dolphins can learn, memorize and emit whistles. It was then tempting to examine the possibility of teaching them, instead of speech, for which they are not particularly well equipped anatomically or phonetically, a whistled language, better suited to their natural characteristics. That was initially suggested by Busnel ("Information on the human whistled language and sea mammal whistling", in Whales, dolphins and porpoises, ed. by Ken Norris [University of California Press], pp. 544 - 568.) and attempted by Batteau (D. W. Batteau, P. R. Markey: Man/Dolphin Communication Final Report, U. S. Naval Ordinance Test Station, China Lake, CA, Contract #N00123-67-C-1103 [1967]). This researcher's untimely death did not permit the experiment to be taken very far but his attempt deserves to be recalled here.

"Batteau, who was not acquainted with a whistled language, used electronic whistles produced by a generator. These whistles, ranging between 4 and 12 kHz, were emitted by an automatic setup called Vocal-Trainer by the author. Simultaneously the apparatus analyzed and compared the animals' responses with the signals emitted. By conditioning the animals he showed after a few months of experimentation that dolphins could be trained to associate a body motion with an underwater acoustical signal. Later they could be trained to reply with whistles to acoustic signals of great complexity and to imitate them, copying pitch contours very accurately (D. W. Batteau, P. R. Markey: Man/Dolphin Communication Final Report, U.S. Naval Ordinance Test Station, China Lake, CA, Contract #NOO123-67-C-1103 [1967] and P. R. Markey: Final Report, contract #N66001-69-C-0819, U. S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center [1969.).

This first step, admittedly only preliminary one, proves that the dolphin can reach the earliest human stages of echolalia, that at which the child learns to use his speech organs. Clearly the association of the significant with the signifie should follow. This was easily achieved in the case of the chimpanzees, and it encourages one to hope that the same could also be done with dolphins. However much remains to be done in this field and it is still a matter for the future."

(page 101)

"Although these conclusions are unspectacular and far removed from the science fiction tales of Hollywood, it must be said that much is possible, as far as dolphins in captivity, i.e., under training, are concerned (D. W. Batteau, P. R. Markey: Man/Dolphin Communication Final Report, U. S. Naval Ordinance Test Station, China Lake, CA, Contract #N00123-67-C-1103 [1967]). On the plane of whistled languages it is in theory perfectly possible to use this type of FM as a basis for language teaching." (bold type added)

(page 107)


"It will no doubt have been noticed that not once throughout this monograph have whistled languages been referred to as speech surrogates. In the opinion of the present writers there is nothing to recommend the use of this term. Whereas the sign language of deaf-mutes, for instance, is truly a surrogate since it is a substitute for normal speech, whistled languages do not replace but rather complement it in certain specific circumstances. In other words, rather than surrogates they are adjuncts. Looking at the question from a slightly different point of view, when a Gomero or a Turk whistles, he is in effect still speaking, but he modifies one aspect of his linguistic activity in such a way that major acoustic modifications are imposed upon the medium. Nevertheless the fact remains that he is still using the same medium, although in a vastly different shape. The procedure would be identical if one were to speak into a machine designed to convert the spoken word into whistled signals. It will be remembered that something of this sort was attempted recently in the U. S., with what long-term success we do not know, in the hope that communication with dolphins would thereby be facilitated," (bold type added)

This information supports the position that the Batteau approach to dolphin communication was always viable. What is needed is another attempt at the Batteau approach to human/dolphin communication in order to answer these questions. This approach must be consistent with Batteau's in that the dolphins are allowed to whistle back and thus "speak".


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