Dolphins are Chatty Cathys

Photo credit to the wonderful photographer Dudley McLaughlin

I’m sure you are familiar that dolphins and whales communicate underwater.  Maybe you are lucky enough to have heard them clicking, whistling and singing. Let’s talk dolphin.

Dolphins, talking. Talking dolphins. Photo Credit to Dudley McLaughlin
Dolphins, talking. Talking dolphins. Photo Credit to Dudley McLaughlin

Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals that use language to communicate complex information. They also use nonverbal cues and body language, like humans do.  Physically, they don’t have a larynx, but  scientists believe that sounds are produced in the nasal region, in a similar process.  Air is pushed through the nasal region, past “phonic lips” that vibrate and cause noise.

Dudley McLaughlin

This noise can be received by other dolphins through “acoustic sacks”, (located in the jaw) with thousands of receptors.  With more receptors than humans, dolphins get a full visual using sounds. Imagine having ears facing all directions: you’d be able to tell the direction of sounds faster, and by using echolocation, identify objects and barriers.

Photo credit to Dudley McLaughlin
Photo credit to Dudley McLaughlin

Dolphins are known to communicate with series of whistles and clicks. Impressively, they can use both clicks and whistles at the same time, having two conversations at once, or as James Nestor explains it in his free diving novel “Deep”, similar to talking out loud and chatting with a friend online at the same time.

Dudley McLaughlin
Dudley McLaughlin

It’s been observed that dolphins even identify themselves to other dolphins with a signature whistle, something they repeat  over and over upon coming to new pods or single dolphins.  This signature whistle is similar to announcing their name to each other.  Mother dolphins repeat this signature sound over and over, for days on end, after the birth of babies, to imprint this “name”  on them.

Echolocation, or the bouncing of sound waves helps dolphins navigate and avoid barriers.  They have been shown to use echolocation so effectively that they can navigate narrow mazes underwater while blindfolded.  But even more impressive than that skill (which many human have been able to develop to some degrees), scientists are starting to speculate that dolphins use sound waves to “see” 3d visions of objects and animals around them.

Dudley McLaughlin
Dudley McLaughlin

Dolphins are so awesome and so smart, many people get the wrong idea about them.  There is some woo-woo pseudo science about how dolphins can see people’s tumors or ails and can “heal them” in therapy sessions.  But dolphins aren’t therapists or doctors, they are wild, intelligent animals, who need to be left in the wild to hunt, explore, reproduce and live their lives unimpeded by bound servitude to humans.

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Dolphins can make different sounds in air than they can underwater. These sounds are made by blowing air through their blow holes and using their muscles to control the sounds that emerge.  These sounds are different than how they communicate underwater….sounds underwater travel 4x faster than in air, and captive dolphins have been shown to practice sounds that are pleasing to humans, even teaching them to other captive dolphins around them.  They seem to reserve “air talking” for humans and underwater talking for other dolphins.

Dolphins are awesome!


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