Dolphin Communication Research

Thu, 24 Aug 2017

By Tangalooma Island Resort

Researching how Moreton Bay's Dolphins Communicate

Since the establishment of the wild dolphin feeding programme at Tangalooma Island Resort, Marine Education and Conservation Centre staff have documented the behaviours and interactions of wild bottlenose dolphins that visit the shores of the resort each evening. Over the years, the wild dolphin feeding experience has become a huge drawcard for holidaymakers visiting from all over the world, as up to 11 wild bottlenose dolphins greet Tangalooma Dolphin Care Team staff and resort guests off the Tangalooma beach.

Studies into wild dolphin communication is fascinating territory for scientists and researchers across the globe, and as the University of Queensland’s Barry McGovern explains, not a great deal of detailed research has been done within Moreton Bay to determine exactly how the regions population of wild bottlenose dolphins use acoustic communication to interact with each other.

Introducing Mr Barry McGovern and Ms Katya Ovsyanikova, two researchers leading the way into understanding the acoustic repertoire and behaviour of wild bottlenose dolphin using our resident dolphin visitors as study subjects. Over the next 12-24 months, both Barry and Katya, along with a third colleague Jordan Hoffman, will visit Tangalooma as they set out to record, observe and hypothesise exactly what Tangalooma’s wild dolphins are communicating to each other and why!

Researcher Katya Ovsyanikova

Researchers Barry McGovern & Jordan Hoffman

We caught up with both Barry and Katya to learn more about their incredible research project and exactly what they aim to understand amidst the hugely interesting yet complex field of wild dolphin communication!

Interview with Katya Ovsyanikova and Barry McGovern

Us: Thanks for taking the time to explain your research to us! So, exactly how are you trying to understand the acoustics and social interactions of our wild bottlenose dolphin visitors to Tangalooma?

Barry: Well, the world of dolphin communication and behaviour is incredibly sophisticated. We know some things, but there is so much we don’t know about how wild dolphins use sound to communicate with each other. To strip our studies back completely, I guess the easiest way to explain our work is that we are trying to understand the acoustic repertoire of wild dolphins including whether or not they have individually distinct whistles known as ‘signature whistles’.

Katya: There is a general theory that each dolphin has a unique and distinctive ‘ signature whistle’, completely unique to their individual personality. We want to see if Tangalooma dolphins use such whistles in this setting.

Us: As in a whistle that only that dolphin can make, that only represents them?

Katya: That’s right. Essentially, wild dolphins communicate with each other using different forms of sound, and it was shown that each dolphin has its own defined sound that it uses more than any other whistle. Similar to how maybe your name is unique to you. However, nothing in the natural world is ever so simple, and one of the interesting things about signature whistles is that other individuals can sometimes copy signature whistles of other animals, as if referring to them. It makes the whole system even more fascinating.

Barry: While Katya is mainly focusing on signature whistles, I am also interested in the other vocalisations the dolphins make such as non-signature whistles, burst pulses and their echolocation clicks.

Us: Can you explain echolocation clicks?

Barry: Yes, dolphins use echolocation to navigate and find prey. Much like a bat uses echolocation to catch moths, the dolphins use it to catch fish. They emit a series of clicks and wait for them to bounce off an object where they receive these reflected sounds and can work out various aspects of the object such as what it is, what direction it is and how far it is from them. It is likely that they can also tell more sophisticated information about the object but that is the basics.

Guests can hand feed dolphins at Tangalooma Island Resort

Research was often conducted from the Tangalooma Jetty

Us: So, what might the dolphins need to communicate to each other?

Katya: It appears that individual identity and location are very important in dolphin communication. But they also might communicate emotional/motivational and other types of information.

Barry: Acoustic communication is vital for these wild dolphins to keep in contact with each other. Often under water visibility can be quite poor, so sight is not as useful as it is on land and therefore sound production and hearing plays the role of navigation and communication under water.

Katya: And as well as that, dolphins are a social species, they need to keep in continuous contact so interaction and contact with each other is just an inherent part of their living

Research being conducted from the Tangalooma Jetty

The dolphins at Tangalooma Island Resort

Us: So at the nightly Tangalooma wild dolphin feeding programme, how are you recording these sounds?

Katya: We have three hydrophones in the water that are constantly recording the dolphins' sounds. Two are located under the jetty and one is located off a buoy on the other side of the feed zone. Having three hydrophones strategically positioned in different areas of the feed zone, or where the dolphins actually interact each evening gives us the opportunity to localise the sound source and gives us a more defined representation of the dolphin sounds.

Barry: We can then measure the time differences each sound hits each hydrophone and accurately locate the source of that sound. We then match up the sound to the behavioural and individual data we collect and start to match signature whistles with individuals and sounds with different behaviours.

Us: That is incredibly interesting! The whole study sounds quite in depth. How long will it take to gather enough data to determine an outcome from this study?

Katya: We have a rough timeline of about 2 years for data collection, so we will be at Tangalooma about every two weeks for four or five days, our work is dictated by the tides as we can only work when high tide coincides with the evening feeds. However, we will also be working from our research boat around the rest of Moreton Bay, so we are in for a very busy two years.

Us: And just on that, why have you chosen Tangalooma as the location to study? What does it offer to make this an ideal location to conduct this research?

Barry: Well, most obviously is consistency! The feeding programme generally welcomes the same dolphins each evening, therefore making the data we collect very repeatable, something that is quite difficult to do in a more natural setting. That’s the first vital step I think, the next is to then apply our findings to the rest of the dolphin population.

Katya: The area is also nicely contained, as in the dolphins generally interact in a relatively small geographical area when they visit, which helps us with the placement of our hydrophones and the consistency of our recordings, again something very difficult to do out at sea.

Barry: It’s like a lab setting using wild dolphins! The dolphins are free to come and go as they please, and communicate between themselves with hopefully their natural and wild behaviours.

Katya: We are just lucky enough to be able to capture that through our controlled recordings.

Dolphin Recordings

Listen to some of the unique Dolphin Communications recorded by the researchers here:

Us: And just to wrap our little chat us, can you tell us anything interesting about any of the dolphins that visit? Have you observed anything interesting since beginning your studies at Tangalooma?

Barry: I like Nari! He’s a regular visitor and just seems to have quite a nice personality. But most importantly, his unique dorsal fin shape makes him easy to spot when he shoots into the feed! I’ve also noticed Silhouette showing quite aggressive and cranky behaviour towards her son Betts. Maybe this behaviour is reflecting the fact that Betts is growing up and becoming more independent. In the wild this would be a common occurrence, when a male starts to get older the females will generally push him from the group.

Us: Anything else you want to add before we jump into listening to some of these dolphin whistles?

Katya: Dolphins live in their own world of sound. We’re just trying to learn more and advance what’s known for dolphin communication in the wild. They are incredibly intelligent and complex creatures and a fascinating object for research.

To learn more about Barry and Katya's research visit the University of Queensland’s Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory.

To learn more on the island, simply visit the Tangalooma Marine Education and Conservation Centre.

About the author

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