Deciphering the language of dolphins

Dr Stephanie King and Dr Vincent Janik from the University of St Andrews’ Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU), have made a tantalising breakthrough after 10 years of research on trying to understand the language of dolphins – could man-kind in a not-so-distant future communicate with another species?

Dr Stephanie King, a research fellow at the University ofSt Andrews (Cornelius, 2013).

Dr King’s and Dr Janik’s research on Scotland’s East coast population of Bottlenose dolphins has revealed some fascinating insights into the way dolphins communicate with each other using special ‘signature whistles’. The East coast population consists of around 200 individuals (made up of smaller pods of 30 or 40 individuals), which travel to and from the St Andrews bay and the Moray Firth. Dr King and Janik used hydrophones to listen in on each dolphin’s signature whistle, which appears to be unique to each dolphin. It is thought that the dolphins are effectively shouting out their own ‘name’ to other dolphins in their group to broadcast their identity (University of St Andrews, 2013).

Up to 50% of the vocalisations that dolphins produce seem to be these signature whistles. This could be linked to the fact that staying in touch with other members of the pod, in the murky waters of the North Sea, is quite important – especially as dolphins are such sociable animals, comparable only to humans, elephants and some apes (University of St Andrews, 2013).

However, as Dr King explained on an episode of the BBC’s Winterwatch, their research suggests that the dolphins are not just shouting their own names. In fact, the scientists began to see that the dolphins would copy each other’s signature whistles when they were together and so would not only shout out their own name but also the names of others. Furthermore, through playing back signature whistles to the dolphins in the wild, it was found that a dolphin would respond to a signature whistle through repeating it back to the speaker. However, this would only occur if the speaker broadcast the signature whistle of that particular dolphin and so it is thought that the dolphins do not respond to other dolphins’ signature whistles (Winterwatch, 2014).

Effectively, a good analogy of this is that a dolphin (let’s call him/her ‘Flipper’) will respond to the calling of his/her own name (“Flipper!”) by repeating his/her own name back (“Flipper!”), as an acknowledgement to say, “I’m here!”

However, this copying of another dolphin’s whistle only occurs between certain members of the population. Only individuals with strong social bonds, such as calves and their mothers or males that have had long alliances with each other will respond in this way (Winterwatch, 2014).

Fascinatingly, this is the first ever example of this being recorded in the animal kingdom, aside from in humans, by using unique vocalisations as a language to identify one’s self and to label others.

Dr King explains how these signals are different from those of other animals. He says that: “Animals have been found to use calls to label predators or food, but these calls are inherited and not influenced by learning. The use of new or learned sounds to label things is rare in the animal kingdom. However, it is ubiquitous in human society and at the heart of human language. There is good data showing the ability to invent new sounds and copy them in dolphins and this led us to design our experiments” (University of St Andrews, 2013).

Dr Janik added that: “Our results present the first case of naming in mammals, providing a clear parallel between dolphin and human communication. In experimental work, parrots are also good at learning novel sounds and using them to label objects. Some parrots may also use these skills in their own communication. Thus, both dolphins and parrots present interesting avenues of research for understanding labelling or naming in the animal kingdom.” (University of St Andrews, 2013).

Interestingly, a trans-Atlantic project has gone even further than simply listening to the dolphins’ vocalisations and has been able to visualise these sounds using a pioneering instrument called a Cymascope (, n.d.).

CymaGlyphs of two dolphins’ vocalisations underwater. They show ‘picture sounds’ which could one day act as a lexicon of the dolphin language (, n.d.)

A research team made up of English acoustics engineer, John Stuart Reid and Florida-based dolphin scientist, Jack Kassewitz, has for the first time imaged an imprint of a dolphin’s call. The pictures above and below show these images, called “CymaGlyphs”, as they have been named, which are reproducible patterns that may form the fundamental basis of a dictionary of the dolphin language (, n.d.).

Analysis by conventional techniques to decipher the dolphins’ language has been limited by the sheer complexity of the sounds that these cetaceans produce. Unlike normal spectrographs (graphs of frequency and amplitude), these CymaGlyphs allow actual sound vibrations in the ocean to be visualised which can resolve the minute details of these vocalisations (, n.d.).

One theory is that dolphins have evolved the ability to translate dimensional data from their echolocation beams into verbal information. This may suggest that the CymaGlyph patterns may even resemble what the dolphins perceive as they receive both their own and other individuals’ echolocation calls (, n.d.).

Kassewitz has postulated that there is strong evidence for dolphins to have the ability to visualise sound in the water as humans use ultrasound on pregnancy scans in hospitals. The sounds travelling through the water can at first be seen at frequencies of 20-20,000 Hz (within a human’s audible range) as a holographic bubble, whilst at above 20,000 Hz the sound becomes beam shaped (almost like a lighthouse’s beam). The surface tension of water is used as a membrane onto which the sound bubbles or beams can imprint onto, thus creating a CymaGlyph on the camera (, n.d.).

The five CymaGlyphs shown above are from this baby, named Merlin, as he called to his mother (SpeakDolphin, n.d.)

Kassewitz is continuing through numerous experiments to try to record the sounds of more dolphins targeting a variety of different objects in the water. This way he may be able to build up a catalogue of CymaGlyphs which can be analysed and assigned a ‘picture word’ – given that they can verify that a particular sound is repeated for a particular object (, n.d.).

Dr Horace Dobbs, a leading authority on dolphin-assisted therapy, has commented that the dolphin’s brain could have evolved in such a way that it can specialise in processing auditory data just as human brains do in terms of visual data: “Nature tends not to evolve brain mass without a need, so we must ask ourselves what dolphins do with all that brain capacity. The answer appears to lie in the development of brain systems that require huge auditory processing power. There is growing evidence that dolphins can take a sonic ‘snap shot’ of an object and send it to other dolphins, using sound as the transmission medium. It is therefore hypothesized that the dolphin’s primary method of communication is picture based. Thus, the picture-based imaging method, employed by Reid and Kassewitz, seems entirely plausible.” (, n.d.).

The CymaGlyphs have been able to be ordered into three broad categories now, which are signature whistles, chirps and click trains. Signature whistles are generally thought to represent a means by which individual dolphins identify themselves (as supported by Dr King’s and Dr Janik’s research from the SMRU in St Andrews) whilst click trains are more associated with echolocation. Chirps on the other hand are thought to represent parts of the dolphin language but more research needs to be done to confirm these theories. On the CymaGlyphs, the signature whistles appear to be composed of regular concentric bands of energy (much like a radar screen that an air traffic controller uses) whilst chirps appear to look like flower-shaped structures (much like human vocalisations on the Cymascope). Click trains are the most complex of the three however, with a mixture of tightly packed concentric bands on the edge of the CymaGlyph around unique central patterns (, n.d.).

If you would like to watch an interesting and entertaining lecture to find out more about dolphin language, then please go to the TED website and watch Dr Denise Herzing’s presentation: ( Her research on a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins, for no less than 28 years, has allowed her to follow three generations of family relationships and behaviours to try unlock the secrets of their language (TED, 2013).

Based on the research marine biologists have conducted to date, is it only a matter of time before mankind will be able to communicate meaningfully with another species of similar brain power as ours? Should this feat be achieved, that the scientific community should regard this as one of the most ground-breaking achievements in modern-day biology, if not in science in recent memory. Now is that not something to be excited about the next time you get the privilege to see one of these incredible creatures?


Cornelius, B. (2013). Dr. Stephanie King, University of St Andrews – Dolphins and Names. Available: Last accessed 8th Feb 2014.

Kassewitz, J & Weber, M. (2008). Dolphin Echolocation. [Image online]. Available: Last accessed 8th Feb 2014.

SpeakDolphin. (n.d.). PRESS RELEASE: Deciphering Dolphin Language with Picture Words. Available: Last accessed 8th Feb 2014. (n.d.). Cymaglyphs. [Image online]. Available: Last accessed 8th Feb 2014.

Stuart Westmorland/Corbis. (2008). Bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus. [Image online]. Available: Last accessed 8th Feb 2014.

TED. (2013). Denise Herzing: Could we speak the language of dolphins?. Available: Last accessed 8th Feb 2014.

University of St Andrews. (2013). Dolphins respond to individual names. Available:,222619,en.php. Last accessed 8th Feb 2014.

Winterwatch. (2014) BBC Two. Wednesday 22nd January.

About Alec Christie 9 Articles
I’m a wildlife warrior who has taken inspiration from Steve Irwin and Sir David Attenborough to pursue a career in wildlife conservation and television presenting. A Marine Biologist by training, I am currently studying at the University of St Andrews in Scotland but soon I’ll be moving to the University of Cambridge for a PhD in Zoology. Using my PhD I’ll be working to streamline the process by which conservation science is converted into policy change and action in the field. I love the outdoors and wildlife, and I’m an amateur wildlife photographer in my spare time. One of my favourite animals are seabirds (particularly the Fulmar) and I really want to become a wildlife television presenter one day. I am passionate about making people realise what an amazing natural world we live in and why we should keep striving to protect it.

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