How Do Dolphins Communicate?

Since the 1960s, scientists have known that dolphins use unique whistles to contact other dolphins, much like calling out to someone by name. A 2013 study took that theory further, finding that a bottlenose dolphin will respond when it hears its “signature whistle,” repeating it back as though saying, “Did you call me?” Dolphins form complex relationships within tight-knit communities, and in vast oceans where visibility is poor, this unique communication tool helps them stay connected.

Dolphins use whistling sounds to call each other by "name," and they can recognize and respond to those names.
Dolphins use whistling sounds to call each other by "name," and they can recognize and respond to those names.

The researchers said this is the first time this behavior has been seen in an animal -- though other studies have suggested that some species of parrot may also use sounds to identify others within specific groups.

Dive into some dolphin facts:

  • Dolphins live in a “three-dimensional environment offshore, without any kind of landmarks,” explained Vincent Janik, a researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “They need a very efficient system to stay in touch.”

  • Past studies have shown that dolphins often use signature whistles in big group settings, like when pods of dolphins meet at sea.

  • Researchers have determined that infant dolphins learn these individual whistles from their mothers.

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Discussion Comments

anon1004363

How successful have people been in teaching dolphins a practical language, something useful in their every day lives?

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