Deciphering the Language of Dolphins

Talking to animals, especially ones that can relate to humans, has always been a dream of many people. Now, however, the language of one of the most intelligent animals, the dolphin, may soon be able to be understood by humans. Although this is not a device that you can strap onto a dolphin or human and automatically be able to have a conversation, recent research has made great strides in understanding the particular hums and whistles of our friends.

            We’ve always known that dolphins use different pitched whistles and sounds, especially when they meet other pods, but we are only now beginning to understand that each specific whistle has a special meaning. A certain whistle from a dolphin may be equivalent to a human saying “Hello, my name is Bob”. These whistles can also indicate that an individual dolphin is approaching on friendly terms and is not looking to attack.


            The breakthroughs in dolphin language were achieved by researchers trailing pods of the common bottle-nose dolphin around and using special underwater microphones to record certain pitches and whistles that the animals make. Times of particular interest are when different pods of dolphins were interacting  with each other. By using certain statistical techniques, researchers were able to single out signature calling whistles from the usual array of squeaks and chirps. The signature whistle noises are thought to be greetings from one pod to another. These whistles were very abundant when one pod of dolphins swam and joined with another and absent when the pods were not joined showing that these signature whistles were probably a method of getting together and communicating with other pods. Even when greeting another pod, not all the dolphins sent a greeting. Often only a few would relay the greeting and a few from the other pod would relay an answer. Since different dolphins relayed greetings and answers at different times, it is most likely that the pods had no specified spokes-dolphin and that any member of the group can relay the greeting and the response.

The presence of special whistles among dolphins may indicate that each individual has a name, much like we humans do. Researchers have caught onto this and are trying to determine how each unique dolphin develops its own unique whistle. It would be very interesting to know if these whistles are “given” at birth the way humans are given names at birth or if young dolphins have to actively develop it in order to be recognized both among the pod or in relationship to other pods when they are adults. Finding the answers to such questions may not only give us an insight on how dolphins talk but can also give us insights on group dynamics among them. Even in light of the research applications, the most exciting thing about this is that if we can learn and copy the whistle calls, we may be able to open up real conversation with another species and perhaps one day have deep heart-to-heart talks with our dolphin friends. It sounds incredible, but who knows? One day it just may be possible.