Chatterbox Mammals: Can Dolphins Talk?

can dolphins talk

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When I was young my biggest dream was to be able to communicate with dolphins, and I vividly remember asking: Can dolphins talk?

I always felt helplessly drawn to these mystical marine mammals ever since I set eyes on them for the first time, which was before I could even mutter my first words. 

I attribute this to the fact that my mom was lucky enough to swim with them in the wild and didn’t know she was pregnant with me until after coming back from the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As I grew older I knew I wanted to devote my life to working with these mesmerizing creatures.

I would often get asked if I wanted to be a vet when I grew up and the answer was always “no” as I could see animals would usually be afraid of vets and my 5-year-old self wanted to be their “friend”. But can you really become a dolphin’s “friend”? The truth is dolphins can’t talk.

However, this doesn’t mean they can’t communicate in highly complex ways. Today I will tell you everything I know about dolphin communication with each other, with humans, and everything in between.

Can Dolphins Really Talk?

The definition of “talk” is to communicate via spoken words. Taking this into account we can conclude that dolphins can’t talk; at least not in the same way you and I can talk.  They do, however, “talk” to each other! 

From the moment a dolphin is born it will start communicating with conspecifics via a series of squeaks, clicks, and whistles.

A dolphin’s communication skills will improve as it gets older and is so complex that scientists have discovered that every single dolphin has an individual call that works kind of like its name.

The dolphin’s “signature whistle” was discovered in the 1960s by scientists Melba and David Caldwell and although there is still a lot to learn about them what is known is they are a standard part of dolphin etiquette when meeting new conspecifics from a different pod.

The signature whistle is remarkably similar to human names and appears to be used in the same ways you and I would use our names; eg. when introducing yourself to a new group of people. 

The different calls used by dolphins will vary from pod to pod, almost like every pod has its dialect, but there seems to be a “universal” communication among pods as well. 

How Do Dolphins Communicate With Each Other?

You already know that dolphins communicate via a series of sounds, nevertheless, these marvelous cetaceans are very physical and display a great deal of communication by means of body language. 

These cues can be physical (a gentle nudge) or visual (head bobbing or blowing bubbles).

From strengthening bonds between pod members to showing aggression or inviting another dolphin to engage in play, a great deal of communication occurs without emitting a single sound.

Verbal communication by using a wide array of calls, clicks, whistles, chuffs, and more is extremely complex among dolphins and allows them to convey important information regarding things like age, mental state (anger, happiness, frustration, etc.), or reproductive state.

This advanced ability to communicate effectively also allows them to work together on coordinated strategies while fishing or even just swimming together.

Can Dolphins Understand Humans?

The communication strategies witnessed in dolphins have been proven to work while communicating with humans as it is not uncommon for these marine mammals to work alongside humans in highly coordinated hunting efforts. 

Some places where dolphins and local fishermen work together to obtain the most fish for all involved in an amazing mutualistic effort include the town of Laguna in Brazil and Monkey Mia in Australia. 

There have also been several recorded instances where dolphins in distress have come to divers to be helped and appear to perfectly understand that the humans are providing the necessary assistance.

In the following video you can find an example of this:

Can Dolphins Be Taught Language?

Dolphins learn their own type of language and their learning curve is eerily similar to the one witnessed in humans.

Calves will start learning a few basic calls and with time perfect their ways of communication. 

However, if you specifically ask if dolphins can learn a language similar to that of humans the answer, as far as science can confirm, is no.

Even though dolphin communication is highly complex and can convey lots of information, as far as scientists know it lacks some of the main characteristics of human speech:

  • Being able to refer to abstract concepts.
  • The ability to refer to past, future, and present events and occurrences.
  • Grammar. 

Throughout the year’s dolphins have proven time and time again that they are more than capable of learning complex behaviors via operant conditioning.

Still, this type of communication between dolphins and humans is far from being considered a “language”. 

How Far Can Dolphins Communicate?

Dolphin calls can travel for long distances! The particular type of call that is believed to be used for communication among themselves is whistles and the distance they travel is affected by their surroundings.

For example, in shallow waters with muddy bottoms, a dolphin’s whistle can travel about 2 km / 1.2 miles, while out in the open ocean the same whistle could be heard over a range of 20 km / 12.4 miles. 

More On Dolphin Communication

As the sound-sensitive creatures these marine mammals are, it is important to remember that underwater noise pollution is a very real threat dolphins are facing worldwide.

All the noise generated by vessel traffic, underwater construction, and activity related to the oil and gas industry, among others are causing serious harm to dolphin populations as it affects their ability to navigate via echolocation, communicate with each other, find food and reproduce. 

Final Thoughts

Although the short answer to the question “can dolphins talk?” is no (for now) I personally believe that there is so much still to discover regarding the secret lives of these beautiful sea dwellers that it wouldn’t come as a surprise if future evidence showed the opposite to be true.

What is certain as of now is that language or no language, talk or no talk, these animals are amazingly smart and able to easily convey information in a way that evidences great intelligence and I can’t wait to see all that they still have to teach us about their lifestyle.