The Dolphin Dialect: Can Dolphins Have Their Own Conversations?

The ability to use complex languages to communicate with one another is perhaps humankind’s greatest feat, surpassing all other cultural revolutions. Conveying information through language has allowed humans to collaborate — working together to invent unthinkable advancements in technology — and it is one of the reasons why we have become the dominant species on earth. Since language is such an instrumental part of who we are, wouldn’t it be fascinating to discover that other species have their own languages and can sustain their own conversations? Dolphins might do just that.


How Do Dolphins Communicate?

In the wild and in captivity, dolphins use a wide range of communication. Researchers have witnessed dolphins exhibiting tactile behavior such as holding fins or head butting and have seen dolphins (who have excellent eyesight) communicate through visual behavior such as playing dead.1 Although these behaviors have been documented, dolphins rely mainly on vocal communication. Using whistles, chirps, and clicks, dolphins have an incredible sound range (0.2-150 kHz), including sounds that even humans cannot hear.2 Dolphins also have “signature whistles” that are unique to each individual dolphin, kind of like a name. They use sounds with higher frequencies for echolocation, which allows them to detect objects up to 200 meters away.3

Dolphins Holding Hands (Photo by: Gia, travel blogger)

In the past few years, researchers have discovered that dolphins can use these whistles, chirps, and clicks to speak in their own “dialects.” Dolphins in different regions of the world have their own unique sounds, even if they are members of the same species. For example, a study done in 2007 on bottlenose dolphins found that the dolphins off the coast of Wales produced different sounds than the dolphins from the Shannon Dolphin Wildlife Foundation (SDWF), located in Ireland.4 Research student Ronan Hickey discovered that the dolphins from Wales produced 32 different sound types, whereas the dolphins from the SDWF produced only eight sound types.5

“The idea that the sounds are different is not a bad notion — you’d expect the information had to be different given the diversity of the areas where they reside,” said Simon Berrow, another researcher at SDWF.6

Dolphins not only produce different dialects, but can also mimic these dialects. Killer whales (which are the largest species of dolphin), for instance, were witnessed learning vocalizations of other dolphin species. When the killer whales and bottlenose dolphins were housed in the same enclosure, the killer whales produced a greater amount of clicks and whistles (sounds produced more by bottlenose dolphins) than pulsed calls (sounds produced more by killer whales).7


Decoding the Dolphin Language

The variety of unique noises that dolphins make has convinced many scientists that dolphins in fact have their own “language.” Although it might not be as intricate as human communication, researcher Dr. Vyacheslav Ryabov from the Karadag Nature Reserve in Ukraine is certain that dolphins possess some form of language:

“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,” he said.8

In Ryabov’s research on Black Sea bottlenose dolphins Yasha and Yana, he found that the pair produced a string of sounds that resembled a conversation.9 What stuck out to him most was that each dolphin waited until the other was done “speaking” until it produced more sounds.10 Furthermore, each sound that the dolphins produced had a unique length and frequency, indicating that each noise represented its own “word.” 11

Yasha and Yana (Photo by: Teresa Guerrero, journalist)

Ryabov’s study, however, published in the journal Mathematics and Physics in 2016 was refuted by many esteemed scientists and even his colleagues.

“I think it’s very early … to be drawing conclusions that the dolphins are using signals in a kind of language context, similar to humans,” Joshua Smith, research parter of Ryabov stated to CNN.12

One argument against Ryabov’s conclusions is that dolphins in the wild might not overlap their sounds because doing so would cloud each individual’s sonar information.13

“Many, many animals across the animal kingdom will avoid signal masking and thus time their vocalizations accordingly,” researcher Stephanie King from the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance said.14

Another argument is that the tools Ryabov used to measure the dolphin’s sound outputs were not directly in front of the dolphins, meaning that some sounds might have been missed because of the decreased amplitude.15

“The Ryabov paper effectively ignores most of what is currently known about the properties of dolphin clicks, how to measure them correctly, and how they are used by animals in various contexts, and instead lays out the author’s own ideas for how dolphin communication might work,” Marc Lammers, researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology said to National Geographic.16


The Wild Dolphin Project

Denise L. Herzing, the director of The Wild Dolphin Project, an ongoing research program that is currently running its 33rd year of field work, has been studying three generations of Atlantic spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins in the Bahamas region.17 Unlike Ryabov’s research, which used two captive dolphins, Herzing is currently observing dolphins in their natural habitat.

Denise Herzing conducting field research (Source: Wild Dolphin Project)

Through recording the dolphins’ lives and logging their natural behavior, Herzing hopes to decode the dolphin’s complex form of vocal communication. Currently, her team uses an instrument called Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT), which can “translate” the dolphins’ whistles.18 Herzing’s goal is to associate a specific whistle with an object (such as seaweed), and get the dolphins to voluntarily ask for the object with the corresponding sound.19

Denise Herzing holding CHAT (Source: Wild Dolphin Project)

“As we decode their natural sounds, we’re also planning to put those back into the computerized system. For example, right now, we can put their own signature whistles in the computer and request to interact with a specific dolphin,” Herzing said.20

Decoding the dolphin language can lead to many new advancements in linguistics technology. AI language detection systems can be improved.21 Vocal communication with other species such as apes and birds becomes possible. In addition, further understanding the behavior of dolphins through language will allow us to discover new things about dolphins and their relatives — possibly new species — and better take action to protect them and preserve their natural habitats.

“I mean, imagine what it would be like to really understand the mind of another intelligent species on the planet,” Herzing said.22

Works Cited:   [ + ]

1. Communication.” Dolphin Research Center. Accessed July 28, 2017.
2. Entertainment, SeaWorld Parks &. “Communication & Echolocation.” Animals: Explore. Discover. Connect. Accessed July 28, 2017.
3. Ibid.
4. “Study finds dolphins speaking “Welsh” dialect.” Reuters. May 24, 2007. Accessed July 28, 2017.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Geggel, Laura. “Killer Whales Learn How to Speak Dolphin.” LiveScience. October 10, 2014. Accessed July 28, 2017.
8. Knapton, Sarah. “Dolphins recorded having a conversation ‘just like two people’ for first time.” The Telegraph. September 11, 2016. Accessed July 28, 2017.
9. Worley, Will. “Scientists discover dolphins can speak almost like humans.” The Independent. September 12, 2016. Accessed July 28, 2017.
10. Knapton, Sarah. “Dolphins recorded having a conversation ‘just like two people’ for first time.” The Telegraph. September 11, 2016. Accessed July 28, 2017.
11. “Dolphin Dialects: first evidence of spoken language in cetaceans?” Oceanbites. September 14, 2016. Accessed July 28, 2017.
12. Westcott, Ben. “Do dolphins have a spoken language?” CNN. September 13, 2016. Accessed July 28, 2017.
13. Ibid.
14. “Dolphins Recorded Having a ‘Conversation?’ Not So Fast.” National Geographic. July 25, 2017. Accessed July 28, 2017.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Olsen, Erik. “How Far Will Dolphins Go to Relate to Humans?” The New York Times. September 19, 2011. Accessed July 28, 2017.
18. “Dolphin whistle instantly translated by computer.” New Scientist. Accessed July 28, 2017.
19. Olsen, Erik. “How Far Will Dolphins Go to Relate to Humans?” The New York Times. September 19, 2011. Accessed July 28, 2017.
20. Herzing, Denise. Denise Herzing: Could we speak the language of dolphins? | TED Talk | Accessed July 28, 2017.
21. “The Language of Dolphins Could Be Translated by 2021.” Futurism. May 01, 2017. Accessed July 28, 2017.
22. Herzing, Denise. Denise Herzing: Could we speak the language of dolphins? | TED Talk | Accessed July 28, 2017.

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