New Discoveries in Dolphin Communication Reveal Use of Diplomacy to Avoid Fights

dolphin pod photo

Photo via JD Ebberly via Flickr CC

We know that dolphins have an advanced language, more complicated than most other creatures that we're aware of. But to what extent is only now being unraveled. A complex communication system is a sign of a complex social system, and scientists are just discovering that dolphins - intensely social creatures - use diplomacy when talking with one another. By revealing a new level of importance for the burst-pulse sounds used by dolphins along with their clicks and whistles, the researchers have realized that the sounds mirror behavior that keeps the social hierarchy and peace of the pod intact. According to Science Daily, a Spanish researcher and a Paraguayan scientist completed the most detailed study on bottlenose dolphin sounds to date. Published in a new book called Dolphins: Anatomy, Behaviour and Threats, the research shows how different levels of sound made by the dolphins reflect complicated social interactions. They found that the whistles keep dolphins in contact with one another and to coordinate hunts, while the burst-pulse sounds are made to keep aggression levels in check during times of high excitement.

"Burst-pulsed sounds are used in the life of bottlenose dolphins to socialise and maintain their position in the social hierarchy in order to prevent physical conflict, and this also represents a significant energy saving," Bruno Díaz, lead author of the study and a researcher at the BDRI, which he also manages, said.

When dolphins are competing for food, they make these sounds to establish who is higher up in the pecking order and keep fights from breaking out. The least dominant dolphin will submit to the more dominant dolphin.

"The surprising thing about these sounds is that they have a high level of uni-directionality, unlike human sounds. One dolphin can send a sound to another that it sees as a competitor, and this one clearly knows it is being addressed," explained Díaz.

It is well documented that dolphins have an extraordinary level of intelligence and their social structures are on par with that of humans. That is the primary reason why scientists and philosophers have come out saying that they should be granted non-human person status, with the right to life, liberty and well-being. It is also what makes dolphin killings that those that occur in Japan all the more tragic.

The better we understand dolphins and their language, the more we can understand about their level of self-awareness and intelligence. However, their language is so complex that despite this new research, we still barely understand what the cetaceans are saying.

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