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.

Dolphin Communication

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.

Linguistic studies of dolphin.

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.




Denise L. Herzing. Dolphin Communication and Cognition: Past, Present, and Future. MIT Press, 2015.

Thomas I. White. In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier. John Wiley & Sons, 2007.

Roitblat, Herman, Nachtigall. Language and Communication: Comparative Perspectives. Psychology Press, 2013.



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