Dolphin Language and Communication
Dolphins are like the kid that won’t shut up. They are almost constantly making sounds of one of two kinds:
communicative or navigational. The different sounds are made in different ways.
Echolocation sounds are produced in their nasal passages just below their blowholes, and are called clicks.
Clicks are sometimes produced in such rapid succession that they sound like buzzes or even quacks, and beamed
forward from the dolphin’s head. These sounds are produced just behind the melon, an oily, slightly off-center lump
on what you’d call the dolphin’s forehead, and the sound waves are focused forward through it.
Scientists are not entirely certain how the melon works, but it does seem to amplify and clarify the dolphin’s
echolocation sounds, and may play a part in collecting the sounds bouncing back. They allow a dolphin to detect
remarkably detailed information from the world around them. In one test, a dolphin found a marble-sized sphere at
more than the length of a football field. Some scientists speculate that echolocation sounds may also be used to
deliver an acoustic shock to small prey.
In the larynx, dolphins can produce high-pitched whistles and squeals which can rapidly change pitch. Whistles are
single tones, with no vibrations that make them sound like buzzes. As far as scientists can tell, the whistles are
a form of communication with other dolphins, and squeals are used to express alarm or sexual excitement.
There have been vast studies done on whether dolphins communicate with language, some more reliable than others.
Even major researchers have made some pretty far-fetched claims with little scientific data supporting their
claims. On the other end, fisheries and others who depend on the deaths of dolphins to support their livelihoods
tend to downplay the communication and intelligence of dolphins, sometimes equating them with fish.
The truth, as in almost every case with extreme opposing claims, lies somewhere in the middle. Dolphins are
highly intelligent, and have a greater brain-to-body-weight ratio (important in determining real intelligence) than
any other mammal besides homo sapiens. They have brain ratios twice the size of any of the great apes, and are
estimated to fall in approximately the same category as australopithecines, early humanoid ancestors. The
appearance of the dolphin brain is also startlingly similar to that of a human brain.
Like most other animals, dolphins do have communication. Their squeals and whistles communicate emotional states
and, often, the presence of danger and food in the area. They may also help them coordinate “herding” processes.
Dolphin females often act as “midwives” to new mothers, and every dolphin in the pod cares for the others.
But do they communicate linguistically? There’s some evidence for it. Dolphins tend to stay within their own
pods, and may have trouble understanding “foreign” dolphins. In studies done on dolphins near Scotland, individuals
appear to have names; or at least, other dolphins use specific and unique whistles only in the presence of certain
other dolphins, as if calling them by name. Unlike any other animal besides humans, dolphins exhibit a great
tendency to take turns when vocalizing – making their communications sound like a conversation.
There have also been very basic linguistic studies of dolphin sound patterns. According to some studies, dolphin
sounds follow the same basic patterns of all human-based language, from Morse code to Chinese. Though we cannot
understand what they’re saying, it’s not beyond the bounds to state that dolphins may indeed have language, though
it’s certainly a language unlike any we know today.