Humans have known for a long time that dolphins are intelligent animals. They are among a handful of animals that recognize themselves in a mirror. They play, they show off for boats. They even have a sweet move called the “spy hop” in which they lift their bodies vertically out of water to have a look around.

Did you know that dolphins are also complex communicators? Humans are only starting to understand the advanced communication of dolphins, and a few of us are attempting to join in the conversation.

Photo by Yale Cohen on Unsplash

How do dolphins communicate?

Dolphins use body movement, clicks, and whistles to communicate. Their body language not only involves posture, but also sequences of gestures to signify meaning. Vocally, dolphins use a broad range of frequencies way beyond what the human ear can process. Even human recording instruments aren’t fully capable of registering all the dolphin sounds.

Photo by darin ashby on Unsplash

Body language

Like most animals on the planet (including humans), dolphins rely heavily on body language, both posture and gestures.

Dolphin body language follows the same rule of human verbal language – that the shortest words, or in the dolphin’s case, actions, are the most commonly used. For example, dolphins display physical manoeuvres such as tail slaps, dorsal arches, and even blowing bubbles! Sometimes these actions appear in sequence, but they are more often used one at a time. Dr. Ramon Ferrer at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, declared that dolphin body language follows the human linguistics law of brevity.

Clicks

Dolphin clicks are short broadband pulses of sound, used for echolocation. Dolphins send out a short burst of clicks and wait for their reverberations that they use to form a mental image of their surroundings. Dolphins use echolocation for hunting and navigating, but their clicking can also be a form of communication.

Dolphins emit their clicks in streams called “click-trains” or “burst pulses”. As a rule, click-trains of fewer than 200 clicks per second are for echolocation purposes. Click-trains over that rate however, are useless for echolocation, and therefore scientists believe they are used to communicate complex messages. Dolphin click-trains can reach up to 2000 clicks per second! These long burst pulses are more commonly used when dolphins are excited or aggressive.

Whistles

Whistles are harmonic sounds that change in pitch, similar to what humans might identify as language. But there is no Rosetta stone for dolphin whistles, and so far there is no easy translation process.

One thing we do know for sure, is that from a young age bottlenose dolphins develop a signature whistle that acts as a calling card or what humans would relate to as a name. This is an incredibly important key to understanding dolphin communication because it means they use unique sounds to signify meaning.

Going off of this development, and knowing that dolphins have an advanced ability to mimic human sounds, prominent dolphin researcher, Denise Herzing led an experiment in an attempt to bridge the human-dolphin communication gap.

Herzing’s Dolphin Keyboard Experiment

Other researchers have used keyboards in an attempt to communicate with animals, including dolphins and chimpanzees. But Herzing wanted to test dolphin response in the wild, specifically with bottlenose dolphins off the shores of the Bahamas.

Her experiment used an underwater keyboard. Each key emitted a human generated whistle that dolphins could easily mimic. Each key and sound was also connected with a toy. For example one key emitted a unique whistle that signified a rope. Herzing would press the key and offer the rope toy to the dolphins. Eventually the exercise flipped so that when a human pressed the rope key, it would cue the dolphins to fetch the rope and offer it to the human.

Does that mean humans and dolphins could share a language?

Not necessarily. Herzing said the experiment worked a few times but not consistently enough to prove the dolphins actually knew what the whistle meant.

Trained dolphins understand signals and cues in the same way your dog understands when you tell him to sit. That doesn’t mean we’ll be discussing the evening news any time soon.

Dolphin conversations

Although a human to dolphin conversation may not be possible yet, researchers have observed that dolphins appear to hold conversations with each other. When dolphins communicate one on one, they actually let each other speak uninterrupted. They take turns completing a series of whistles and clicks. Similar to what we would identify as polite conversation.

So what do we know?

As of now, we know that dolphins communicate via body language, clicks, and whistles. We also know that we haven’t even begun to fully comprehend the complexity of dolphin communication. In the mean time, we can continue to observe these mysterious, intelligent beings and hope to learn more!