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How Do Dolphins Talk?

i Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images

While dolphins don't articulate information the same way people do, they still talk. A dolphin's vocabulary and method of speaking are fundamentally different from ours, but they do talk to one another, and they even have distinct voices. By using their voices along with nonverbal communication, dolphins are able to speak with one another, form relationships and even protect each other.

Producing Noises

Dolphins don't have vocal cords, but they still talk. They produce sounds using special "lips" in their nasal passages -- when they push air through those lips, it makes the tissues vibrate, producing sounds at varying frequencies. Dolphins whistle, squeak, click and moan, and while their language hasn't yet been decoded by humans, the different noises are used in patterns not unlike the different words in human languages.

Signature Whistle

Just like you have your own unique voice, dolphins have voices linked to their identities, too. Every dolphin has what is referred to as a "signature whistle," or a vocalization that is unique to that creature. Dolphins can emit their signature whistles as a way of identifying themselves to other dolphins, and they are so distinct that they can identify each other by whistle alone, even without seeing each other.

Nonverbal Communication

Just like other animals, dolphins supplement their vocalizations with nonverbal communication. This includes visual cues like shaking their heads, clapping their jaws and blowing bubbles with direct physical contact. Dolphins use their fins and snouts to caress, slap and poke one another, enabling them to "talk" without actually producing noises. Researchers have yet to determine what exactly each nonverbal cue means, as they may vary depending on social context and relationships.

What They Say

Though researchers don't yet fully understand the complexities of a dolphin's language, these creatures are universally regarded as highly intelligent. Because they are so smart, dolphins can use their voices to articulate relatively sophisticated ideas -- for example, a dolphin that has been attacked may communicate what happened to others, then lead them in retaliation or retreat. Similarly, dolphins may use their voices to share information regarding the location of food or potential danger.