60-Second Science

Eavesdropping on Dolphins

Inventor John Stuart Reid has patented a device he calls a CymaScope, which creates three-dimensional images of sound. He hopes to use it to identify specific dolphin sounds. Cynthia Graber reports
[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]


When we think about how to represent sound visually, most of us probably picture those volume-dependent sine waves. But that’s not how John Stuart Reid pictures sound. He’s patented something called a CymaScope. And he’s using it to help us learn more about how animals like dolphins communicate.

The CymaScope contains a thin film of water—basically a membrane. Sound—even at frequencies humans can’t hear—is directed at the water. The water vibrates in response, and a camera records the vibration. The end result is a spherical image of sound patterns.

Reid is working with Jack Kassewitz, a dolphin researcher in Florida. Kassewitz has recordings of dolphins in specific situations—for instance, what he knows to be distress calls from a variety of individual animals. Those calls have been imaged by the CymaScope. Kassewitz also plans to have a number of different dolphins echolocate on a ball. He hopes that’ll give us a visual picture of how dolphins recognize a ball.

It might sound far-fetched, but Reid and Kassewitz believe these sound images will provide a library of what we might call dolphin words. Which could one day let us communicate with them with their own vocabulary.

—Cynthia Graber 

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