What do bottlenose dolphins and Winston Churchill have in common? According to a new study reported in ScienceDaily, they are all master diplomats. Researchers in Italy have determined that dolphins are capable of defusing fights with just a few subtle sounds. What’s more, the researchers have compiled the most comprehensive decoding to date of dolphin language. The study shows that their language is incredibly sophisticated and that we have only scratched the surface in understanding it.

Researchers from the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI), based in Italy, revealed that the use of burst-pulsed sounds by dolphins indicates their emotional and social reactions to situations. This is significant because, previously, dolphins were thought to base their communication just in their whistles. Bruno Díaz is lead author of the study. As he told Science Daily, "Burst-pulsed sounds are used in the life of bottlenose dolphins to socialize and maintain their position in the social hierarchy in order to prevent physical conflict, and this also represents a significant energy saving.” Diaz and colleagues used bioacoustics in the waters off Sardinia to study the animals.

And the guide to dolphin languages is far from simple. Their whistles let them stay in touch with each other and are often used between mothers and babies. They also whistle to control hunting. But the burst-pulsed sounds are used as peace-keeping tools during moments of high tension. When dolphins fight for food, the burst-pulsed sounds are varied and complex, often to defuse sticky situations. These vocalizations help the animals work through complex social communities and even “talk down” would-be attackers. 

Further, it seems that dolphins speak directly to each other. As Diaz explained to ScienceDaily, "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.” In other words, a dominant dolphin will quickly tell a less dominant one when to back off, especially if they are going for the same source of food. Unfortunately for the bottlenose dolphins stuck in the Gulf of Mexico, the encroaching oil spill will not talk back.

For further reading:

Dolphins get diplomatic while communicating
New study looks at the repertoire of sounds used by bottlenose dolphins to share information.