NOTE: This article originally appeared as an episode of The Dolphin Pod. You can listen to the audio version below:
Introduction to Communication
Before we discuss the many ways in which dolphins communicate, it is first important to get straight exactly what communication is. Quite simply, communication is the transmission of information . This is a broad definition that covers all of the many ways that the word ‘communication’ is used, not just in terms of living organisms. Modern technology is based on communication protocols that allow printers to communicate with computers, web browsers to communicate with web servers, GPS systems to communicate with satellites, etc. Each of these systems relies on a structured communication protocol that allows these computer devices to receive and understand instructions.
Animals too rely on structured communication systems to help transmit information. In fact, the ability to communicate information is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom : all life on this planet is able to communicate, both with other individuals of the same species, and with individuals of different species. The methods used for communication are varied and complicated, and are not limited to vocalizations. Ants for example share large amounts of information with other members of the colony through chemical trails and pheromones. Bees are known to communicate complicated information about the location of flower patches by engaging in an intricate ‘dance’ that lets other bees know the distance and direction of tasty nectar-rich flowers. (Bee Audio)
The bee waggle dance:
But communication need not necessarily always be thought of in these complex terms – sometimes messages are much simpler. A large bull moose, for example, grows enormous antlers that convey a relatively straight forward message: I’m big and strong – don’t mess with me! Communicating these kinds of simple messages is not restricted to the animal kingdom however. Flowers too communicate –many species of flowers demonstrate this ability when we take a special photograph using ultraviolet photography equipment. What may look like a beautiful solid-color yellow primrose or dandelion to the naked eye looks completely different when viewed in ultraviolet lighting conditions: intricate patterns and stripes lead into the center of the flower where the pollen is located. These patters evolved specifically to attract the attention of animals that see ultraviolet light – chiefly bees. (Bee Audio) In fact, much of a flower’s structure is designed to communicate information specifically with insects. (Bee Audio) OK, enough with the bees!
A flower photographed in ultraviolet light:
Complex multi-cellular organisms like bees (Bee Audio) hey!, flowers and humans rely on communication systems at the cellular level to function properly. Communication occurs between your brain and your muscles through tiny electrical currents flowing through your nerves. Cells in your body communicate information with other cells by releasing and receiving various proteins, and a breakdown in these communication channels leads to devastating problems like cancer and diabetes.
In fact, the ability to communicate is so commonplace for living beings that scientists are convinced that if alien life does exist, it too will have the ability to communicate. What’s more, scientists think that intelligent life, if there is any in the universe, will probably have developed mass communication abilities similar to that of humans, likely involving radio waves. The governments of the world are so sure of this idea that they have funded the multimillion dollar SETI project (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), which has spent 24 hours a day for the past few decades listening to the background noise of space with giant radiotelescopes hoping to hear something that resembles a communication signal from alien life forms. (Sci-Fi noise) So far, this is all they’ve heard. (Static)
Carl Sagan explains SETI:
So what then is language? Read more below: