Decoding Dolphin Language

All Cetaceans, including dolphins, whales and porpoises have unique communication systems that have captivated humans for decades. Since the early 1960s, when marine biologists discovered that Bottlenose dolphins produce signature whistles to identify themselves amongst groups, the appeal and intrigue of marine acoustics and cetacean communication accelerated into one of the most obscure and complex fields of marine research ongoing today. Let’s dive in to explore the intricate and elusive nature of their language systems and how far along humans are to decoding dolphin dialects. 

It is not uncommon knowledge that Cetaceans are incredibly intelligent creatures. Broadly, species within this order hold the highest intelligence quotient of IQ45. Of them, the Orcas could be considered the most apical extant organism known today, with the amalgamation of their elevated cognitive function, compound social networks and adaptive ability. These Odontocetes have a brain size five times greater than is usual for their body size, which is considered to be a strong contribution and running trait within Cetacea, towards their intelligence. Furthermore, the acoustic apparatus of Cetaceans; namely an intricate system of nasal sacs, bulbous ‘melon’ amplification organ, lower jaw arrangement and inner ear, is precisely constructed, facilitating the adapted development of complex ‘languages’. Even more than humans. 

A Group Of Dolphins Jumping Out Of The Water

Dolphins, porpoises and whales alike maintain intricate social networks and bond for life with few associates to make collective units. These, termed ‘pods’, are consistent throughout their life, with unique vocalisations having been found on a localised level. As pods travel and commune during periods of social activity, hunting and courting, they form transient bonds with others, coordinating movements with intricate visual, acoustic and chemical cues. During these social congregations, normally in the daylight hours and peaks around sunrise and sunset, it is not uncommon to see signs such as raised flukes, tail and body slaps, breaches and erratic changes of speed to communicate with each other. However in low-light zones and indeed during hours without daylight, acoustic perception becomes imperative. With sound travelling 4.5 times faster in water than in air, it is no wonder that they rely upon sound more for communication more than any other mode. 

A Group Of Dolphins Jumping Out Of The Water

There are 3 main delphinid sounds; echolocation clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. Individuals may produce 1, 2, or all 3 types of calls. Spinner dolphins identify themselves with sounds they make whilst trailing bubbles from their blowholes - sounds called ‘signature whistles’ that is specific to each individual dolphin, kind of like a name. There are clicks used for hunting and feeding, buzzes used for social interaction and mating, and “burst-pulsed sounds” used when fighting or defending against predatory threats. 

Unravelling the mysteries of cetacean language is challenging due to the highly dynamic nature of their life history, fast movements, dynamic activity and relevance of communication in line with changing contextual environments. However, with researchers dedicating their career to decoding dolphin language and with ever-developing acoustic sensing equipment in addition to recent artificial intelligence, humans are getting closer to being able to ‘speak and listen in Cetacean’ … watch this space! 

Interested in dolphins and whales? Join the resident marine biologist in weekly talks and see them for yourself up close on engaging dolphin cruises run by Ocean at Intercontinental Maamnuagau’s Marine Centre! 

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