How UVM researchers are decoding the language of dolphins

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) New research just published from the University of Vermont delves into dolphins. Specifically, a small population of river dolphins in Brazil.

Our Cat Viglienzoni found out why the research could help unravel the mystery of how and why these animals communicate.

The Araguaian dolphin, also known as a "boto," makes hundreds of sounds.

"They're not very pretty," said Laura May, a UVM biologist. "They are typical river dolphins. They have a round bump at the top of their head. They have a very long snout. Their bodies are very flexible and elongated."

These dolphins were classified as a new species five years ago. Little is known about them. May is trying to change that.

"They're seen as solitary animals with very little social interactions," she said.

That's because getting close enough to study them is a challenge. May said the breakthrough came when she met fellow biologist Gabriel Melo-Santos who knew of a river town in Brazil where these dolphins would come and interact with people.

"They're very curious," May said. "They come to see what's going on. You see the mother and the calf is under her body."

The tracking process is not without trial and error. Turned out the botos weren't on board with researchers' suction cup tags.

Laura May: We had this idea that we are going to put the tags, they're going to come, and then when they leave we will have a sense of where they are going and what are the sounds that are happening afterward.
Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: But they didn't cooperate.
Laura May: But they didn't cooperate.

Eventually, they decided on an underwater audio recorder.

"This is the hydrophone," May said.

It's a specialized microphone inside a watertight recording container. Using that, they identified 237 different types of sounds the botos make.

"These guys were super chatty," May said.

She says there was one they noticed most-- an audio interaction between mother and calf.

"Seeing this diversity, that was really exciting," May said. "Because now we want to know what does all this mean?"

What those mean is the next step in their research. And she says they want to see if the botos' sounds could provide clues about other dolphin species' communications.

Click here for more on the research.