To start, thanks for sending in your questions! This is the first of a series of posts I will be making to answer the questions that you submit. I am already learning so much and can’t wait to get through the rest of the questions you have sent in, so keep an eye out for your questions in future posts! In this post, I cover three questions regarding dolphin communication. Each question is followed by its appropriate answer. Thanks Roman, Eleanor, and Ben for your thoughtful questions. Let’s dive right in!
Roman S.: To what extent have scientists deciphered dolphins’ language?
When humans think of language, we most often think of vocalization. However, body language and posturing also play a role in the messages dolphins send to each other. In his book, In Defense of Dolphins, Thomas White explains, “Ken Norris has noted that dolphins always make body movements when they generate sounds. He hypothesized that these movements are ‘packets of information’ which are part of dolphin communication…wild dolphins combine both acoustic and non-acoustic means to constitute a ‘sensory integration system’ that communicates vital information throughout a school” (144). Dolphins also position themselves so that the coloration of their skin patterns send specific messages. A rotating flash of white underbelly can be a powerful signal from afar. Certain actions such as tail slapping are known to be aggressive behavior. Dolphins have even been found using their body language to mimic sharks. The Dolphin Communication Project has developed a comprehensive catalogue of dolphin postural signals. Chisa and Ben think of Dolphin Dance Project dancers’ interactions with dolphins as artistic research into the possibility of communicating with dolphins through body language.
Research has also been done on dolphin vocal communication. Denise Herzing and Kathleen Dudzinski have done extensive research in this field, but there is still a lot to be learned about the complex system of dolphin vocal communication. While humans have 1 pair of vocal cords, dolphins have 4 pairs (called monkey lips), so their range of vocalization is much greater than ours and they can make multiple sounds at once. Dolphins can also interpret sound at a faster pace than humans can. Sometimes dolphins make sounds that aren’t even audible to the human ear. All of these factors make it incredibly difficult to study dolphin communication. However, scientists have identified unique signature whistles that every individual dolphin has. Signature whistles function similarly to human names but are also used as a greeting. There is speculation that signature whistles may possibly include information about how the individual dolphin is doing physically or emotionally.
Eleanor D. (6 year-old from Wisconsin): How does a dolphin get help when it gets hurt?
Signature whistles may be a primary way for dolphins to get help when they are hurt! Mothers and babies send their signature whistles to each other to keep track of each other and can probably signal when in distress. But most often, teamwork is how dolphins stay healthy and safe. Dolphins are very rarely found swimming by themselves. Most of the time, dolphins in a pod stick together, and dolphins are so socially oriented that they care for each other as if they were all family. Even when not swimming as a group, dolphins are often found in pairs, and they almost always have a friend to help them if they get in trouble.
There are also lots of stories of dolphins approaching humans for help when they are caught by a fishing hook, line, or net. Perhaps the dolphins even understand that these materials belong to humans, which is why they seek us out for removal of these objects. This video shows a dolphin seeking help from divers in Hawai‘i.
Ben D. (NYC director, cinematographer, choreographer, 3D specialist): Can dolphins communicate telepathically?
Dolphin telepathy is as yet undocumented! However, dolphins have been found to eavesdrop on each other’s echolocating. In Defense of Dolphins quotes brain specialist Harry Jerison on this topic. “Intercepted echolocation data could generate objects that are experienced in more nearly the same way by different individuals than ever occurs in communal human experiences when we are passive observers of the same external environment. Since the data are in the auditory domain the ‘objects’ that they generate would be as real as human seen-objects rather than heard-objects that are so difficult for us to imagine. They could be vivid natural objects in a dolphin’s world” (178). Thomas White explains Jerison’s writing further, noting that “There’s nothing analogous to this experience in humans. The closest thing that Jerison imagines is if we could share neural data in a way that would let us see what something looked like through someone else’s eyes” (178). So, not exactly telepathy, but still pretty amazing if you ask me!
For Further Thought…
As these answers show, the sonic world is critical for dolphin communication. This is important to keep in mind when discussing the effects of noise pollution in the underwater world. Excessive noise from boats can be at best a disturbing nuisance, and at worst a life-threatening communication barrier to dolphins in the wild.
It’s important to remember that in thinking about dolphin “language,” we have to expand our human conception of what “language” is, so that we can consider all the possibilities that are available to dolphins in the ways that they communicate. Perhaps considering the intricacies of body language may be helpful. Dolphin Dance Project works to build a physical vocabulary to interact with and potentially communicate with dolphins.