New Study Shows Dolphins Talk Like Humans

Dolphins don't whistle, but communicate using a method that's similar to the way humans talk

By  Jennifer Viegas  – Discovery News


Dolphins produce sounds much as humans do, and don’t whistle as was previously thought.

All toothed whales probably communicate in a similar way, since they have anatomy comparable to that of dolphins.

The hope is humans will eventually be able to understand and possibly even communicate with dolphins.

Dolphins do not whistle, but instead “talk” to each other using a process very similar to the way that humans communicate, according to a new study.

While many dolphin calls sound like whistles, the study found the sounds are produced by tissue vibrations analogous to the operation of vocal folds by humans and many other land-based animals.

Communicating similar to the way that humans do solves what would otherwise be a major dolphin problem.

“When we or animals are whistling, the tune is defined by the resonance frequency of some air cavity,” said Peter Madsen, lead author of the research appearing in Royal Society Biology Letters.” he problem is that when dolphins dive, their air cavities are compressed due to the increasing ambient pressure, which means that they would produce a higher and higher pitch the deeper they dive if they actually whistle.”

Madsen, a researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences at Aarhus University, and his team studied how dolphins communicate by digitizing and reanalyzing recordings made in 1977 of a 12-year-old male bottlenose dolphin.

The dolphin breathed in a “heliox” mixture consisting of 80 percent helium and 20 percent oxygen — a concoction that causes humans to sound like, as the scientists put it, Donald Duck. The reason is because the mixture has a sound speed that’s 1.74 times higher than normal air. If a person whistles after sucking in helium, the pitch of the tune will then be 1.74 times higher than if he or she whistles after breathing in just air.

“We found that the dolphin does not change pitch when it is producing sound in heliox, which means that its pitch is not defined by the size of its nasal air cavities, and hence that it is not whistling,” Madsen said. “Rather, it makes sound by making connective tissue in the nose vibrate at the frequency it wishes to produce by adjusting the muscular tension and air flow over the tissue.”

“That is the same way that we humans make sound with our vocal cords to speak,” he added.

The researchers believe the finding applies to all toothed whales, since they have similar nasal anatomy and they “all face the same problem of making sound during deep dives.”

In terms of what the dolphins are communicating, it’s known they share information about their identity, helping them to stay connected even while traveling in vast bodies of water.

Acoustics engineer John Stuart Reid and Jack Kassewitz of the organization Speak Dolphin have created an instrument known as the CymaScope that reveals detailed structures within sounds, allowing their architecture to be studied pictorially.

Similar to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, the researchers may then be able to figure out the meaning of dolphin calls. In addition to the whistle-like sounds, dolphins produce chirps and click trains, suggesting they engage in very complex and sophisticated social interactions.

“There is strong evidence that dolphins are able to ‘see’ with sound, much like humans use ultrasound to see an unborn child in the mother’s womb,” Kassewitz  said. “The CymaScope provides our first glimpse into what the dolphins might be ‘seeing’ with their sounds.”

He added, “I believe that people around the world would love the opportunity to speak with a dolphin. And I feel certain that dolphins would love the chance to speak with us — if for no other reason than self-preservation.”

Yet another interesting component of the new research is demonstrating how animals can evolve an ability, lose it, and then evolve it again. The land-based ancestors of dolphins likely produced sounds as humans do, lost that skill when they went into water, and then evolved it again, but by “using a completely different anatomy in their noses,” Madsen said.

As for actual whistling, dolphins can be trained to do it, just as humans sometimes whistle for fun, but Madsen doesn’t “think they do it in the wild, because they have evolved a much more effective way to make the same sound.”

Download the 195 page PhD dissertation by Frants Havmand Jensen

Acoustic Behaviour of Bottlenose Dolphins & Pilot Whales

Zoophysiology Department of Biological Sciences University of Aarhun, Denmark

Dolphins Invent A New Way To Hunt Fish.


If you've ever found value in our articles, we'd greatly appreciate your support by purchasing Mindful Meditation Techniques for Kids - A Practical Guide for Adults to Empower Kids with the Gift of Inner Peace and Resilience for Life.

In the spirit of mindfulness, we encourage you to choose the paperback version. Delve into its pages away from screen glare and notifications, allowing yourself to fully immerse in the transformative practices within. The physical book enriches the learning process and serves as a tangible commitment to mindfulness, easily shared among family and friends.

Over the past few years, Wake Up World has faced significant online censorship, impacting our financial ability to stay online. Instead of soliciting donations, we're exploring win-win solutions with our readers to remain financially viable. Moving into book publishing, we hope to secure ongoing funds to continue our mission. With over 8,500 articles published in the past 13 years, we are committed to keeping our content free and accessible to everyone, without resorting to a paywall.