Can Dolphins ‘Talk’? New Study Reveals Sophisticated Dolphin Language

dolphin communication

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dolphins’ vocalizations increased when they were working together to open a food-filled canister
  • The findings suggest the dolphins were discussing the best solution to the problem at hand
  • Separate research found dolphins communicated in sentences of up to five “words,” with each listening to the other without interruption before replying

By Dr. Becker

Animals don’t speak English, Spanish, French or another man-made language, but that doesn’t mean they can’t “talk.” Members of the animal kingdom use multiple modes of communication some of which are obvious and observed by humans and others that are not.

Dolphins, for instance, use mid-frequency vocalizations when interacting socially; these are audible to humans. They also use high-frequency bio-sonar to survey their surroundings and locate prey — this humans are unable to hear.1

Dolphins are also known to hunt and play cooperatively and make sounds while doing so, but it has remained unknown whether these sounds are related to the cooperative events.

In other words, do dolphins talk to each other while they’re hunting their prey, having conversations like two humans might, or are the sounds merely a coincidence?

As noted by research published in Animal Cognition, “Analysis of communication between partners is vital in determining whether actions are truly cooperative rather than serendipitous or learned via trial and error.”2

Dolphins ‘Talk’ to Help Them Solve Problems

Researchers from Dolphins Plus research institute in Florida and the University of Southern Mississippi conducted an analysis of dolphin sounds including whistles, burst pulses and bi-phonations during different problem-solving scenarios.3

A group of six dolphins were given a canister filled with food that could only be opened by pulling simultaneously on a rope tied to each end.

Two of the dolphins were able to solve the puzzle and open the canister — and learned how to do so in as little as 30 seconds in 20 out of 24 trials.4 One of the dolphins also figured out how to open the canister on his own, although it took much longer.

The dolphins’ vocalizations during the events were recorded and analyzed, and it turned out that the dolphins’ vocalizations increased when they were working together to open the canister.

No increase in chatter was observed when dolphins were merely present, watching the task or when only one dolphin was working to open the canister by himself.

The most common sound dolphins made while working together to open the canister was burst pulse signals — the same sound observed in past recordings of cooperative events among bottlenose dolphins.

Likely, they were discussing the best solution to the problem at hand. Marine ecologist Leigh Torres, Ph.D., of Oregon State University told New Scientist:5

“This study clearly shows that dolphins use vocal communication to jointly solve problems … The results point toward the possibility of a dolphin language that enables team problem solving.”

Dolphins Speak in Sentences and Wait Their Turn to Speak

Another intriguing study has shown for the first time that dolphins have conversations in a way that’s remarkably similar to humans.

The researchers used an underwater microphone that distinguished between two dolphins’ voices, namely Yasha and Yana, two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins living at the Karadag Nature Reserve in Feodosia, Ukraine.6

The dolphins communicated in sentences of up to five “words,” with each listening to the other without interruption before replying. As reported by The Telegraph, lead researcher Dr. Vyacheslav Ryabov, said:

“Essentially, this exchange resembles a conversation between two people. Each pulse that is produced by dolphins is different from another by its appearance in the time domain and by the set of spectral components in the frequency domain.

In this regard, we can assume that each pulse represents a phoneme or a word of the dolphin's spoken language.

The analysis of numerous pulses registered in our experiments showed that the dolphins took turns in producing [sentences] and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other's pulses before producing its own.

This language exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, this indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins, and their language can be ostensibly considered a highly developed spoken language, akin to the human language.”

It shouldn’t be overly surprising that dolphins communicate with a human-like language, the researchers explained, since dolphins have brains that are larger and more complex than human brains — and they’ve had them for more than 25 million years.

The burning question is what were the dolphins saying? Unfortunately, we don’t know at this time, but wouldn’t it be amazing to eavesdrop on a dolphin conversation?

The researchers believe “humans must take the first step to establish relationships with the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet Earth [dolphins] by creating devices capable of overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of … communications between dolphins and people.”7

Perhaps one day soon humans and dolphins will be able to have a conversation, but for now we can only imagine what that conversation will be.