Can humans communicate with animals?

Communication with Nonprimates?

Though little Alex (pictured here with his primary researcher, ethologist Irene Pepperberg) has died, his legacy lives on.
Though little Alex (pictured here with his primary researcher, ethologist Irene Pepperberg) has died, his legacy lives on.
AP Photo/File

Now let's take a dip into the water and check out the communication skills of the bottlenose dolphin. Research at the Dolphin Institute in Hawaii has shown that bottlenose dolphins, while obviously not able to converse verbally due to a lack of vocal cords, seem to comprehend language at a rather masterful level. Through a simple series of hand gestures, the dolphins not only understand what the researchers are trying to convey semantically (the concepts and objects they're describing) but also what they're indicating syntactically (the word order and grammar structure). Such syntactic understanding is a fundamental component of processing language.

The dolphins also appear able to understand linguistic references. For example, a gesture representing "ball" is understood to represent a variety of objects with similar characteristics, rather than simply one specific ball. The dolphins can also indicate whether an object is currently in their habitat, refer to objects when they're out of sight and understand the future implications of present actions.

Still, since it's practically impossible to determine exactly what's going on inside their heads, it's challenging to try to demonstrate what kind of communicative capabilities bottlenose dolphins truly posseses.

A third potential example of human communication with animals came in the much more compact 1-pound package of an African gray parrot named Alex, who died in 2007. Like the bottlenose dolphins, Alex seemed to have a simple grasp of syntax and object permanence. But unlike dolphins, Alex could actually vocalize words. But how much of what he said did Alex actually understand? His ability to process information was difficult to decipher, so it's hard to prove whether the words he uttered were to him a collection of sounds that produced results, or were the result of actual comprehension. But researchers on the case claim Alex grasped many communicative and cognitive concepts such as manipulating numbers, deciphering different shapes and materials, and understanding concepts such as bigger or smaller and same or different.

The debate over whether animals are capable of actual communication with humans in a meaningful way is far from settled. But to learn more about what possibilities are out there, look over the links below.

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More Great Links


  • Adams, Cecil. "Are gorillas using sign language really communicating with humans?" The Straight Dope. March 28, 2003. (3/10/2010)
  • "Bottlenose dolphins." Sea World. (3/10/2010)
  • Great Ape Trust Web site. (3/10/2010)
  • Hamilton, Jon. "A Voluble Visit with Two Talking Apes." NPR. July 8, 2006. (3/10/2010)
  • Linden, Eugene. "Can Animals Think?" Time Magazine. March 22, 1993. (3/10/2010)
  • "Our Research: Past and Present." The Dolphin Institute. (3/10/2010)
  • Raffaele, Paul. "Speaking Bonobo." Smithsonian Magazine. November 2006. (3/10/2010)
  • Smith, Dinita. "A Thinking Bird or Just Another Birdbrain?" New York Times. Oct. 9, 2010. (3/10/2010)
  • The Alex Foundation. (3/10/2010)
  • The Gorilla Foundation. (3/10/2010)
  • White, Thomas. "Between The Species."Loyola Marymount University. August 2009. (3/10/2010)