Scientists decode dolphin-speak
AAP / 19 December 2007
Humans have taken a major step forward in unlocking the mysteries of
dolphin-speak, and found their communication is more complicated than
A researcher who spent three years listening to bottlenose dolphins
living off the coast of Byron Bay, NSW, has found certain whistles are
linked to specific behaviour.
PhD candidate Liz Hawkins from Southern Cross University’s Whale
Research Centre in Lismore listened in to more than 50 different pods
Using the starting and final frequency of the sound and its duration,
she distinguished 186 distinct whistle types among the 1650 recorded,
of which 20 were heard frequently and common to more than one pod.
Ms Hawkins also grouped the whistles into five classes based on tone,
and found they were related to certain behaviour.
While socialising, dolphins made almost exclusively flat-toned or
Travelling pods made mostly “sine” whistles, which rise and fall in
bell curves, which Ms Hawkins suggested could be advertising their pod
to other pods.
“They could be talking to another pod and saying `we are over
here. . . do you want to join?’,” she told AAP.
Resting was associated with “concave” whistles, sounds that went down
in pitch and back up again, while downward toned whistles were not
found to be associated with any particular behaviour.
One particular whistle was associated with feeding.
“They could be advertising they have found food, they could be
advertising to other animals there is food there, or it could be
referred to a particular type of feeding or a particular type of
food,” Ms Hawkins suggested.
And Ms Hawkins noticed that dolphins riding the waves her boat created
had often made a particular sound, while in early research she found a
group of dolphins living off Queensland’s Moreton Island emitted a
particular whistle when alone.
“That whistle could definitely mean: ‘I’m here, where is everyone?”‘,
Ms Hawkins told New Scientist magazine.
Ms Hawkins said the sounds were not evidence of a language, but showed
the dolphins were communicating “context-specific information”.
“A specialist in linguistics would not call this a language,” she told
“They are wild animals and generally wild animals only make sounds or
transmit information that is essential to their survival.
“It basically suggests their communication is a lot more complex than
what was generally thought.”
Ms Hawkins said she hoped to take the project underwater to observe
the dolphins’ behaviour and try to more closely match the whistles to
“There is only so much information you can get from looking at the
surface activity,” she said.
“You really need to get under the water and to somehow eavesdrop and
look what’s going on with their lives under there.”
Reporter: Jonica Newby / Producer: Paul Schneller / 26 February
PhD student Liz Hawkins is trying to discover, why some of our
dolphins have become so quiet, that it appears the noise we humans
make is affecting the way dolphins communicate. Many scientists
suspect dolphins have a complex vocabulary, but as Catalyst’s Jonica
Newby reports, surprisingly little research has been done on dolphin
language in the wild. But thanks to the latest software, Liz, is
managing to match individual dolphin whistles to behaviours. She has
identified 68 distinct whistles – far more than anyone in the world
has recorded before. And because she can see the behaviours so
clearly, for the first time, she’s been able to work out what many of
them mean. And she’s recorded a lot more than she bargained for. This
story has the first ever sound recording of a dolphin rape. But,
perhaps her most remarkable finding is that dolphins appear to have
changed the frequency they use to communicate to one is can’t be
interfered with by the noise we’re making in the water.
Narration: For millions of years, dolphins have been communicating
with each other, in peace. But lately, they’ve had intruders. So could
all this noise be interfering with their channels of
communication? That’s what PhD student Liz Hawkins wanted to know.
Liz Hawkins: These boats are very loud which is a prime example of
what dolphins have actually got to deal with.
Jonica Newby, Reporter: You can’t even wear headphones when they go
Liz Hawkins: No. It really does hurt the ears listening to those
boats. And we’ve got dolphins just here.
Narration: Liz is a trainee dolphin interpreter, on assignment here in
Byron Bay. She set out discover whether humans were disrupting dolphin
talk. But in the process, had an extraordinary insight into the secret
language of our coastal dolphins. It all began when Liz started trying
to record and decode normal dolphin communication. And that’s not
Liz Hawkins: There they are.
When we spot them today, they’re right in the middle of the surf break
at Watago Beach.
Liz Hawkins: Hey Stumpy.
Jonica Newby, Reporter: Stumpy?
Jonica Newby, Reporter: Are they surfers?
Liz Hawkins: Are they surfers? Oh for sure.
Narration: Despite the fact scientists suspect dolphins have a complex
vocabulary, surprisingly little is known about how they communicate in
Liz Hawkins: Oh, there’s a whole lot over there on that wave too.
Narration: That’s because they’re notoriously difficult to follow and
study, especially when they decide to hang out where the surf is
Narration: But Liz is undeterred, and when the dolphins move to calmer
waters, we get our first chance to kill the engines.
Liz Hawkins: Ok – Throw the hydrophone in.
Jonica Newby, Reporter: Yeah, I’ve got it.
Liz Hawkins: Turn her on. See if we can hear anything.
Narration: All of a sudden, we’re eavesdropping on their conversation.
Liz Hawkins: Ah – there’s the calf – What did the calf say? He just
did a really intense buzz. which is like a really intense series of
Narration: The clicks are the dolphins echolocation. But Liz’s real
targets are the squawks and the whistles.
Liz Hawkins: There was a little whistle then. Can you hear that?
Narration: It’s these complex whistles scientists believe are most
likely to carry encrypted information.
Liz Hawkins: There.
Narration: And while they’re not easy to decode, already Liz has
deciphered more than she bargained for.
Liz Hawkins: one day in front of the Cape we recorded a group of
dolphins. And what it looked like was 4 males pursuing and chasing a
female who really didn’t want to be chased.
Narration: Amazingly, Liz captured one of the only known recordings of
a dolphin courtship – more like a rape.
Liz Hawkins: and she would basically put her genitals above the water
and she’d keep putting her belly above the water so the males couldn’t
get to her. And as she did that there was a really intense emission of
whistles, and basically it was the same whistle being called over and
over and over again and it was quite a distressed type of call.
Narration: But Liz has also interpreted more benign communications.
Mainly here, in the calmer waters of Moreton Island, just near
Brisbane. These are wild dolphins. But every night, they gather here
for a small feed from the tourists. With this clear water and ideal
recording conditions, Liz has managed to identify 68 distinct whistles
– more than anyone before.
Jonica Newby, Reporter: Oh yeah, I heard that.
Narration: Scientists already knew each dolphin has it’s own distinct
whistle. Called a signature whistle, it’s like an individual dolphin
name. But this call is new. Liz has discovered a group whistle –
possibly a dolphin surname.
Jonica Newby, Reporter: Is this like their family name?
Liz Hawkins: I predict it is. Basically it’s one whistle which seems
to be a contact call. If one member of the pod is in the feeding area
by themselves they will constantly emit this whistle,
Narration: She’s also discovered a specific call that initiates play,
such as a game of chase.
Liz Hawkins: : So basically one dolphin will come up behind another
dolphin and then emit a series of squawks meaning; we’re going to play
chase now and you’re it.
Narration: Decoding dolphin is in its infancy, but it’s already clear
audible communication is incredibly important to them. That’s why Liz
became so concerned – how were the dolphins were coping with this. But
it wasn’t until an incident last year that Liz’s concern turned to
genuine worry. Liz visited Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne for some
additional recordings. But this time, the dolphins were completely,
Liz Hawkins: I threw my hydrophone and the dolphins were facing us so
we should have been able to hear every sound they emitted. Why weren’t
they emitting anything?
Narration: At first, she thought her worst fears had come true. Boat
noise occurs at roughly the same frequency as normal dolphin
communication. So in the face of overwhelming interference, were the
dolphins simply giving up and going mute? Or, as Liz began to suspect,
were the supposedly silent dolphins actually doing something much
cleverer. Back in Byron Bay, the puzzle started to slip into place.
The missing piece came as Liz was analysing more dolphin recordings.
This visual display shows a normal wild dolphin call.
Liz Hawkins: shall we have a listen?
Jonica Newby, Reporter: sure
Narration: But this is the very different whistle made by a captive
Liz Hawkins: You can see it starts in our human hearing range and it
goes up into beyond our hearing range. And then the tail end of the
whistle comes back just into our human hearing range.
Narration: Remarkably, it appears the captive dolphin has learned to
change channels to a higher frequency. Liz thinks the reason is that
inside a pool, the normal low frequency
sounds would bounce dangerously.
Liz Hawkins: it’s a confined space. And basically if they used their
acoustics to the full extent in that environment, it will actually
cause them permanent hearing damage.
Narration: But by switching to a higher frequency, they may have found
a way to protect themselves. And with the realisation dolphins could
change frequency, Liz had a brainwave about the mystery of the silent
dolphins from Port Phillip Bay. What if when boats were around, they
weren’t silent at all. What if, they too had cleverly worked out how
to switch channels.
Liz Hawkins: so it’s actually possible that they’re changing their
acoustic channels so to speak a little bit higher to occupy a
different niche in the acoustic environment.
Jonica Newby, Reporter: Using dolphin stealth mode.
Liz Hawkins: Dolphin stealth mode yes. Absolutely.
Narration: Frequency switching is a fascinating possibility, and one
Liz will spend the rest of her research trying to prove or disprove.
But there’s plenty of evidence dolphins are adapting their behaviour
to humans. Why not their secret communications too?
Dolphins speak a contextual language
BY Emma Young / December 21, 2007
Listen to dolphins whistling to each other and you could be forgiven
for thinking that they are having a conversation. Now we’re a bit
nearer to understanding what they might be saying, thanks to a project
that has distinguished nearly 200 different whistles dolphins make and
linked some of them to specific behaviours.
Liz Hawkins of the Whale Research Centre at Southern Cross University
in Lismore, New South Wales, Australia, eavesdropped on bottlenose
dolphins living off the western coast of Australia for her three-year
“This communication is highly complex, and it is contextual, so in a
sense, it could be termed a language,” says Hawkins, who presented her
work at a meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy in Cape Town,
South Africa, this month.
Dolphins were known to use “signature” whistles to identify themselves
to others, but the meaning of the other whistles they make was a
Hawkins recorded a total of 1647 whistles from 51 different pods of
dolphins living in Byron Bay, New South Wales. From the starting
frequency of the sound, its duration, and its end frequency, she
identified 186 different whistle types. Of these, 20 were especially
Hawkins grouped all the whistles into five tonal classes and found
that these groups, and even individual whistles, clearly went with
different behaviours. When a pod was travelling, for instance, 57 per
cent of the whistles were “sine” whistles, rising and falling
symmetrically. But when the dolphins were feeding or resting, they
made far fewer whistles of this type. And while socialising, they
communicated almost exclusively using flat-toned or rising-toned
The dolphins often made a particular flat-toned whistle when they rode
the waves created by Hawkins’s boat, and it’s tempting to speculate
that the whistle is the equivalent of a child going “wheeee!”. And in
a group of dolphins living off Moreton Island in Queensland, Hawkins
identified a whistle often emitted by an animal when it was on its
own. “That whistle could definitely mean: ‘I’m here, where is
everyone?'” says Hawkins.
Melinda Rekdahl, of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, is also
investigating dolphin whistles. She found they make more whistles when
they’re being hand-fed than dolphins feeding in the wild. It’s too
early to know whether whistles might mean something as specific as
“hurry up” or “there’s food over here,” Rekdahl says. “But it’s
possible. Dolphin communication is much more complicated than we
Study finds dolphins speaking “Welsh” dialect
Reuters / May 24, 2007
BANGOR – Dolphins living off the coast of Wales whistle, bark and
groan in a different dialect from dolphins off the western coast of
Ireland, scientists have discovered.
Different physical environments might have contributed to the mammals
developing distinctive sets of vocalisations or “dialects”, said Simon
Berrow from the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation.
Berrow supervised a master’s thesis by student Ronan Hickey at
University of Wales, Bangor, who analysed 1,882 whistles from the
dolphins in the Shannon estuary and bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan
Bay in Wales. The study found 32 different sound categories, of which
eight were only produced by the Shannon animals.
“The idea that the sounds are different is not a bad notion — you’d
expect the information had to be different given the diversity of the
areas where they reside,” Berrow told Reuters, adding he would use the
data to create a dictionary of sounds and pursue the research further,
should time and money allow.
On Apr 8 2007, 1:03 am, “spectre” wrote:
Experts Open Dolphin ‘Chat Line’ in Fla.
Saturday, April 7, 2007
Key Largo, Fla. (AP) — A marine mammal rehabilitation facility opened
a dolphin “chat line” of sorts Saturday, hoping to teach a deaf
dolphin’s unborn calf to communicate.
Castaway, as the stranded Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is named, has
been recovering at the Marine Mammal Conservancy since Jan. 30. A
battery of tests has confirmed she is deaf.
Dolphins need to hear echoes of sounds they produce to find food,
socialize and defend themselves against predators.
“We asked ourselves `How do we get the calf to speak when we have a
deaf mother?'” said Robert Lingenfelser, the conservancy’s president.
They decided to electronically connect Castaway’s habitat with a
lagoon at Dolphins Plus, a research and interactive educational
facility a few miles down the Keys Overseas Highway. Underwater
speakers and microphones were installed at both locations and
connected via phone lines.
Castaway should deliver her calf in about a month.
“Even before it is born, we want the calf to have an idea of what
normal dolphin vocalization is,” Lingenfelser said.
MAYBE IF WE ASK NICELY
TO: rgl [at] marinemammalconservancy [dot] org, info [at] dolphinsplus [dot] com
[TEXT APPROXIMATE] : ‘is there any possibility, pretty please, for
popular educational benefit, to make 24-7 live stream of audio signals
discussed above available online? Wouldn’t be that complicated, great
research resource (good also for promotion)…’