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How Do Dolphins Communicate? - Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Jenny Homer

Jenny has masters' degrees in public health and public administration.

What can a click or a whistle communicate? If you're a dolphin, these sounds can share an incredible amount of information. Learn how dolphins communicate with sounds and other behaviors in this lesson.

Communication and Dolphins

If you're ever lucky enough to spot a dolphin in the ocean, there are usually others nearby, since dolphins swim in groups. Dolphins are marine mammals who may live in the ocean or in freshwater, and there are about 40 kinds in the world. Because they like being together, communication is a big part of a dolphin's life.

Communication is how people and animals share information or feelings. As people, we use words, as well as smiles and other facial expressions. Even though we may associate dolphins with smiling faces, is that how they communicate? Scientists have studied these smart, friendly animals, and have learned a lot about how dolphins think and the incredible ways they communicate.

Bottlenose dolphin.
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How Dolphins Use Their Voices

Dolphins make different kinds of vocal sounds. They can whistle, chirp, and even scream to show feelings, like when they are excited or afraid. Families of killer whales (which are actually dolphins!) have their own calls.

Killer whales swimming together.
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Scientists believe that every bottlenose dolphin makes its own unique whistle like a signature. The mother dolphin whistles to the calf when it's first born so that the baby will learn the mom's sound. When a baby dolphin is about one month old, it has its own signature whistle. A dolphin can copy its friend's whistle, and will remember the sound after many years.

Other dolphins do not whistle, but send out pulsed sounds. Because sound travels in waves, the dolphin sends out an echolocation click and waits for the wave to come back after reaching something nearby. Think of what happens when you throw a ball at a wall. If you're standing close to the wall, the ball will bounce back quickly. But if you're far away, the ball will take longer to get back. Dolphins use this information to learn where things are around them. Scientists believe that when a dolphin clicks very fast it can be a way to communicate feelings too.

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