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29th February 2012
Dolphins' secret language

Dolphins' secret language

A new study on bottlenose dolphin groups off the coast of Scotland has discovered that dolphins greet each other with whistles, perhaps swapping information such as names, ages, whether they are male and female and more information.

It is widely thought that dolphins are among one of the most intelligent animals on earth.  This new study takes a look at bottlenose dolphin communication, espcially their 'whistles' and how they use them at sea.  Every dolphin has its own whistle, just as we have our own signature.  A dolphin's unique whistle could contain lots of information that lets other dolphins know who they are and how they are.  For example a whistle could say "Hello, I'm Flipper, a healthy four year old dolphin who means you no harm". 

This kind of greeting isn't unusual in animals - most species have a system for introducing themselves and working out who's who but dolphins can copy and invent new sounds - not something that is common among animals.  New whistles or 'songs' are usually learnt and copied by males who sing them to attract females - a bit like the songs of the humpback whale.

One of the most surprising discoveries occurred when groups met in the open sea.  When approaching each other only one dolphin from each group communicates.  This suggests that groups choose a leader or spokesperson for the group,  which could be the oldest dolphin.  Once introduced, the groups join together and talk noisily for a while before getting settled and becoming quiet again.   

Dolphins may also use other methods to communicate such as echolocation to introduce themselves while the leading dolphins complete the initial, formal whistle greeting.  Whistle greetings are also useful as they can be heard by dolphins up to 6 miles away.  This new discovery completes another piece of the puzzle on how dolphins communicate and use their secret language.

Related factsheets -
Dolphins (Bottlenosed)
What do Justin Bieber and humpback whales have in common?


Photograph © Pete Markham CC BY-SA 2.0

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