Dolphin Senses

Exploring the senses of dolphins helps us to understand their processing and their movements. They have very good vision so they are able to see while they are in the water as well as when they come to the surface of it. Good vision allows them to move freely in the water and it can help them to avoid dangers such as predators and even boats that are in the same water that they are.

The exception though is that the Indus Dolphin is believed to be blind. Some of the studies conducted indicate this could be due to where they live, the Indus River. There are suspended sediments there in the water so very little water is able to ever penetrate to the water. It could make the eyes less of a sense that they can use to survive in such a habitat. However, it doesn’t seem to hinder their ability to thrive here.

Studies show that dolphins have excellent hearing as well. They are able to hear frequencies that are least 10 times what the best adult hearing can offer. The ears are very small openings but don’t let that fool you. They are also able to hear well under the water and it is due to them doing so through the lower jaw rather than only using the ears. The lower jaw is able to conduct sound to the middle ear through a cavity that is filled with fat.

The melon in the head also helps with hearing through the complex process of echolocation for dolphins. They use their teeth as a type of antennae so that they can receive information about incoming sounds. They can also use echolocation to help them successfully locate objects. They get information about the size and the shape of the object before they actually see it through this process. While studies have been conducted, there are still plenty of questions that remain about how this fully functions for dolphins.

The overall sense of touch that dolphins experience is highly developed. This is due to the free nerve endings that are around the skin. The nerves seem to be more sensitive around the snout and the pectoral fins, but the entire body is very sensitive. This sense of touch could be why they are able to form bonds within their pods and with humans. They could feel a positive benefit and reduced stress to touch just like humans experience. The human touch can be positive stimuli and may explain why dolphins often do what humans request of them.

Studies indicate that dolphins don’t have any real sense of smell. This is due to them not having olfactory lobes or nerves. However, they are able to taste and they will be picky about the food they eat when it is plentiful. They often develop a preference for certain types of fish over others. Some experts believe that tasting the water is actually the same as smelling for dolphins but there is still plenty of research to be done to confirm this. The theory is that by tasting the water, they are able to recognize what is present around them.

What is very interesting is that almost all dolphins don’t have hair, but they do have hair follicles. It is believed that they are necessary for the overall sensory functionality to take place. Some dolphins do have small hairs that help them out. For example, the Boto River Dolphin doesn’t have as good of vision as many other species, but they have hairs and that could help them to balance out their sensory needs.

One area of research shows that dolphins may also be able to use magnetic sense too. This allows them to use the magnetic field of Earth to help them stay oriented and for navigational purposes. It is possible that it plays a role in migration and helps them to identify where they should be. There have been studies with the Humpback Whale around Kauai that show they rarely move from the magnetic pull of the North when they come back from migrating to feed in the higher latitudes of Alaska. More research needs to be done though for such information to be fully understood and utilized.

The use of their senses is very important to the overall survival of the dolphin. They use the information they collect to be able to interpret and to then determine how to act or to protect themselves. They also use that information to help create an environment that best serves their overall well-being. They have had to use specialized sensory perceptions to do this, and it is believed many of them have evolved over time for dolphins to benefit from. The combined use of senses helps them to find food, to be safe, and to do their best to survive in a given environment.




Ronald Schusterman, J. A. Thomas, F. G. Wood. Dolphin Cognition and Behavior: A Comparative Approach. Psychology Press, 2013.

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



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