Are dolphins able to say hello?

dolphins, signature whistles, speakings

Recently, scientists discovered that bottlenose dolphins (the ones that look like Flipper) have more complex social communication than was previously thought.

At the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Nicola J. Quick and Vincent M. Janik recorded bottlenose dolphins encountering other pods in the wild. Using computerized sound analysis, they found consistent sounds when the groups approached each other. They observed that each dolphin made a particular whistle, as if they were saying, “Hi, my name is Mary.” The scientists are calling these sounds “signature whistles.” The dolphins will call out to another pod, then join up and travel together for a little while. You can read the entire academic paper here.

But what does this mean? Just because the dolphins repeat sounds, does it mean that they are using a language? Scientists have long known that animals communicate with each other. Some species (like vervet monkeys) make particular sounds that represent a specific direction or warning to others, but we don’t really know how animal groups relate to each other linguistically in the wild.

Other animal studies have looked into how animals understand human language. For example, when dogs follow directions, do they actually understand the words? Learn about the border collie who understands 1,000 words here.

The bottlenose dolphin research is still in the early stages, and scientists don’t know what all the sounds they make might mean. Questions like how dolphins decide who calls out to other dolphin groups, and if groups regularly “speak” to the the same groups during one day are still being studied. You can learn more at the Discover Magazine blog.

Do you think dolphins are “speaking?”