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Their moans, groans, squeaks, whistles, and grunts can sound as if they’re a heavy metal band. But bottlenose dolphins make their own kind of “music.” Many of the sounds they make could be imitated by holding a balloon tightly by the neck, then letting the air out faster and slower.

Bottlenose dolphins send messages to one another in different ways. They squeak and whistle and use body language—leaping as high as 20 feet (6 meters) in the air, snapping their jaws, slapping their tails on the surface of the water, and even butting heads.

So what are they trying to tell each other? They can alert each other to possible dangers, let others know there is food nearby, and keep track of others in the group. Nasal sacs inside the dolphin’s head are what make it possible for the dolphins to vocalize. Blowholes located in their heads open and close, allowing the dolphins to breathe. (Being mammals, dolphins have to come to the water’s surface to breathe, just like you.)

Each individual dolphin seems to have its own “signature whistle,” but the sounds we can’t hear may be the most important. Dolphins also produce high frequency clicks, which act as a sonar system called echolocation (ek-oh-low-KAY-shun). When the clicking sounds hit an object in the water, like a fish or rock, they bounce off and come back to the dolphin as echoes. Echolocation tells the dolphins the shape, size, speed, distance, and location of the object.

Bottlenose dolphins also have a sharp sense of hearing. Scientists believe that the sounds travel through the dolphin’s lower jaw to its inner ear and then are transmitted to the brain for analysis.

Can we talk with these animals? A lot of study has gone into bottlenose dolphin sounds. At one time some people believed that learning the meaning of the noises might allow us to talk to dolphins and train them to respond to words instead of sounds. Scientists have discredited that belief but continue to monitor “dolphin talk” as a way to better understand what makes bottlenose dolphins tick (and click!).

Text by Marion McGrath


Tackle the Creature Feature Brainteaser!
True or False?
If you’re swimming near dolphins and start to drown, they will always push you to shore.


Cool Bottlenose Dolphin Links

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