What do Dolphin Sounds Mean?

»»What do Dolphin Sounds Mean?

For generations’ scientists and layman alike have tried to put meaning to the clicks and squeals of dolphins. Is it a language, a higher intellect of which we cannot grasp? Is it signals, advanced forms of communications, or is it just mindless jibber jabber from a very overly happy animal? These are the questions we will answer and analyze as we journey through, the sounds of dolphins. st constantly making sounds of one of two kinds: communicative or navigational. The different sounds are made in different ways.

Bottlenose dolphins ( Tursiops truncatus ) have elaborate sound production and receiving systems. In the Tursiops, four major types of vocalisations have been identified: whistles, clicks, burst pulsed sounds and chirps.

Whistles are used in communication.  In the larynx, dolphins can produce high-pitched whistles and squeals which can rapidly change pitch. Whistles are single tones, with no vibrations that make them sound like buzzes. As far as scientists can tell, the whistles are a form of communication with other dolphins, and squeals are used to express alarm or sexual excitement. They are continuos, narrow-band, frequency-modulated pure tones, limited in frequency to the mid- and upper- range of the sonic spectrum, generally from 4 to 24 kHz, and a half a second in duration. 

Clicks are directional and used for echolocation. These are short, broad-band pulses ranging from .2 to 150 kHz.   Dolphins are able to click and whistle at the same time. Echolocation sounds are produced in their nasal passages just below their blowholes, and are called clicks. Clicks are sometimes produced in such rapid succession that they sound like buzzes or even quacks, and beamed forward from the dolphin’s head. These sounds are produced just behind the melon, an oily, slightly off-center lump on what you’d call the dolphin’s forehead, and the sound waves are focused forward through it. Scientists are not entirely certain how the melon works, but it does seem to amplify and clarify the dolphin’s echolocation sounds, and may play a part in collecting the sounds bouncing back. They allow a dolphin to detect remarkably detailed information from the world around them. In one test, a dolphin found a marble-sized sphere at more than the length of a football field. Some scientists speculate that echolocation sounds may also be used to deliver an acoustic shock to small prey.

Burst pulsed sounds occur commonly in social and emotional context and are thought to be used for communication. These are trains of clicks with repetition rates of up to 5000 clicks per second. The high repetition rate gives a tonal quality to the sounds.

Chirps are thought to be used in communication. These sounds are pulsed, frequency-modulated, broad-band sounds. Frequency modulation occurs in different frequency bands.


Dolphins are highly intelligent, and have a greater brain-to-body-weight ratio (important in determining real intelligence) than any other mammal besides homo sapiens. They have brain ratios twice the size of any of the great apes, and are estimated to fall in approximately the same category as australopithecines, early humanoid ancestors. The appearance of the dolphin brain is also startlingly similar to that of a human brain.

Like most other animals, dolphins do have communication. Their squeals and whistles communicate emotional states and, often, the presence of danger and food in the area. They may also help them coordinate “herding” processes. Dolphin females often act as “midwives” to new mothers, and every dolphin in the pod cares for the others.

But do they communicate linguistically? There’s some evidence for it. Dolphins tend to stay within their own pods, and may have trouble understanding “foreign” dolphins. In studies done on dolphins near Scotland, individuals appear to have names; or at least, other dolphins use specific and unique whistles only in the presence of certain other dolphins, as if calling them by name. Unlike any other animal besides humans, dolphins exhibit a great tendency to take turns when vocalizing – making their communications sound like a conversation.

There have also been very basic linguistic studies of dolphin sound patterns. According to some studies, dolphin sounds follow the same basic patterns of all human-based language, from Morse code to Chinese. Though we cannot understand what they’re saying, it’s not beyond the bounds to state that dolphins may indeed have language, though it’s certainly a language unlike any we know today.














In an article written in 2014 by Smithsonian.com., Denise Herzing, with the Wild Dolphin Project, has used underwater video and sound equipment to study the natural communication system of an especially friendly pod of dolphins that lives along a stretch of the Bahamas near the southern tip of Florida, amassing a database that profiles their relationships, sounds and behavior, and how these things have changed over time.

The latest goal in that research has been to try to use the dolphins’ own signals to communicate with the animals. Last August, the team had a breakthrough. Researchers, during a test run of a wearable translation device, captured a unique whistle that they had taught the dolphins, and the device instantly translated it into English.

Finding a practical way to communicate with dolphins is a dream for many of us.  The advent of new technology and the ability of creative individuals to put it to use is key to enabling these advances to be made. Who knows, it may be an accomplishment we see in our lifetimes.

By |2017-03-28T17:44:12+00:00March 30, 2017|Categories: , |0 Comments

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