Can humans really understand animals? How would animals and humans benefit by learning to speak a common language?

Dolphin Communication
Can animals communicate with humans?
Peggy dives into the language of dolphins.
Segment length: 6:00


You're hiking in the woods with a friend one evening when a wind kicks up and rain starts to pour down. Suddenly you realize your friend isn't with you anymore. You shout, but your voice gets lost in the storm. Taking out your flashlight, you signal "SOS" in Morse Code. A few hundred feet away you see your friend's flashlight signaling, "I'm coming."

Humans and animals both communicate in many ways. Humans use almost 6,000 spoken, written, and code languages and also depend on body language, sight, touch, and smell to relay messages. Animals communicate with many sounds, actions, and cues as well.

Dolphins, toothed whales, and porpoises depend on vocalization, echolocation, and ultrasound to communicate with each other and navigate. With echolocation, dolphins emit and process up to 700 clicking sounds per second to detect the size and location of an object hundreds of meters away. Researchers at the Living Seas exhibit at the Epcot® Center in Orlando, Florida, found that dolphin echolocation is sensitive enough to detect a three-inch steel ball from 100 yards away.

Another experiment at EPCOT Center involved a communications keyboard. Each key on the keyboard had a word written on it, and each key had a related cubbyhole containing an object that represented the word. Humans activated the keyboard by touching a key. Dolphins activated it by inserting their beaks into one of the cubbyholes. Inside each cubbyhole was an infrared beam. When that beam was broken by a dolphin's beak, the human word was heard on an overhead speaker. Dolphins used vision and echolocation to determine which cubbyhole to select when the keyboard was activated.

The dolphins seemed to expect certain behaviors from the trainers. When a human touched the key, the dolphins would swim ahead, then turn to make sure their trainer was following them to the right place.

Scientists don't know if the dolphin's interaction with humans is sophisticated communication or a conditioned response motivated by a reinforcer (food). It may be a long time, if ever, before we can speak "dolphin" and find out what's on their minds.


1. How do you communicate with your pet? How does your pet communicate with you? What do you communicate about?
2. If you could speak dolphin language, what questions would you ask?

Key Words

body language use of facial expressions, posture, gestures, and other nonverbal communication
conditioned response first demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist. Dogs heard a bell when fed, teaching them to associate food with the sound of a bell. Eventually the dogs' response to the bell was to salivate in anticipation of food.
echolocation bouncing sound off objects to provide information about size, location, and movement of those objects
frequency the number of cycles or complete "waves" (sound, radio) per unit of time
ultrasound high frequency sound that humans are unable to hear
vocalization formation of sounds


  1. Cohen, S. (1994) The intelligence of dogs. New York: Bantam.
  2. Dawkins, M. (1993) Through our eyes only? The search for animal consciousness. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  3. Ganeri, A. (1991) Animal talk. New York: Barron's Educational Series.
  4. Linden, E. (1993, Mar 22) Can animals think? Time, pp. 54-58.
  5. Peterson, I. (1992, Nov 14) Dolphin sonar: Using their heads to click. Science News, p. 325.
  6. Wexler, M. (1994, Apr/May) Thinking about dolphins. National Wildlife, pp. 4-9.

Additional resources

  1. 3M Learning Software: What's the secret? CD-ROMs for Macintosh or Windows. (800) 219-9022.
  2. Newton's Apple Multimedia Collection: Life Sciences: Bees. Videodisc with software for Macintosh. National Geographic: (800) 368-2728.
  3. SeaWorld Education Department:
    Or send e-mail to:

Additional sources of information

  1. Dolphin Research Center
    PO Box 2875
    Marathon Shores, FL 33052
  2. The Living Seas
    Epcot Center
    PO Box 10,000
    Walt Disney World
    Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-1000

Main Activity

Smell and Tell
Follow your nose to find the person wearing the same scent as you.

Many animal communication systems depend on matching scents or sounds to identify friends and enemies. Explore what it would be like to use your nose to find out who your friends and enemies are.


  1. Make a scent bracelet for each participant by poking two holes opposite each other about 1 cm (3/8") from the top of each film canister. Cut a 25-cm (10") length of string or yarn to pull through the holes. Tie a knot in the yarn to complete the bracelet.
  2. Poke several holes in the canister lids to allow the scent to escape.
  3. Place the same scent in pairs of canisters to create matching sets of scent-filled canister bracelets. For the liquid scents, such as vanilla or peppermint flavoring, pour a small amount of liquid onto a cotton ball and place it in the canister. Cover each canister with a lid to hide the contents.
  4. Distribute the bracelet sets at random to the participants.
  5. Instruct the participants that they may use only their noses to find the other person with the same scent. No words, sounds, or gestures are allowed. When they find their friend, they should report to you.
  6. Record on a poster board which pairs were easiest or hardest to find.
  7. Repeat the exercise, but be sure that each participant has a different scent.

1. What factors could have affected the discovery process?
2. Is it easier for the new pairs to locate each other after learning to use their noses in the first session? Why is that the case?

Cut out pictures of faces that show different expressions. Mount each on a separate piece of poster board. Ask several friends, one at a time, to look at each and tell you what emotion they see. Record each person's answers. How do the answers compare? Did everyone see the same thing in each picture?

Use a dictionary of American Sign Language (ASL) to learn to communicate a short story. Ask a friend who doesn't know any ASL to watch you tell the story. Ask that person to write down what your story is about. Then teach your friend what you learned about ASL and try telling the story again. Did your friend understand it better?

Humans speak almost 6,000 different languages. Make a list of 10 important words or phrases and find out how to say them in five other languages. If you have friends who speak other languages, ask them (or their parents or grandparents) for help in pronouncing the words correctly.

The same sound produces different echoes in different locations. Try making the same set of noises (a whisper, a loud shout) in different places. You might try standing in a large room with a high ceiling, a bathtub or shower, outside next to a building, outside in the middle of a field, and in a car. What does the sound tell you about the environment?

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