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Dolphins use baby talk to communicate with their young, similar to how humans talk to their kids

In an intriguing discovery that highlights similarities across diverse species, a new study has found that dolphins adopt a high-pitched voice when interacting with their offspring.

Such “baby talk” is a characteristic behavior often observed in human adults when they communicate with young children. 

According to the new study, which was carried out by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, baby talk is not confined to the realm of human communication alone.

The experts analyzed the acoustic patterns of bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitats. The research focused on a group of 19 adult female bottlenose dolphins. They were recorded during catch-and-release health assessments near Sarasota Bay, Florida.

The goal was to examine their high-pitched whistle communications. First, to record them in the company of their offspring. Next, to record them when they were alone or interacting with other adult dolphins.

What the researchers discovered about dolphins baby talk

The study revealed that these dolphins consistently exhibited a shift in their vocalization patterns. This depended on their audience.

The frequency of their whistles increased significantly when they were in the presence of their young ones using baby talk. Then, the whistle tones returned to normal when they were alone or with other individuals.

The range of frequencies used was also broader. This indicates an apparent diversification of their acoustic output during mother-calf interactions.

“‘Motherese’ is a speech pattern that is nearly universal across cultures and languages in human caregivers interacting with children. But evidence among non-human species is sparse. Here, we report evidence for motherese in the bottlenose dolphin, a species that shows parallels to humans in their long-term mother-offspring bonds and lifelong vocal learning,” wrote the study authors. 

The researchers clarified that the median age of calves in the study was two years. Interestingly, this falls within the typical age range during which directed communication towards children is prevalent in humans.

This finding suggests similar developmental milestones in both species when it comes to language acquisition and comprehension.

The experts speculate that this pattern of communication might serve to catch the attention of the young ones. It may also foster bonding and vocal learning.

Dolphins, like humans, maintain strong long-term bonds with their offspring. They also continue to learn and refine vocalization patterns throughout their lives. 

These shared traits make bottlenose dolphins a promising species for studying the evolution of vocal learning and language development in humans, said the researchers.

Similar baby talk behavior among other animals

To bolster their observations, the researchers referenced previous studies that showed similar behavior in other animals. For example, adult male zebra finches were found to alter their songs’ acoustics when singing to juveniles compared to when they were singing alone or to adult females. 

Similarly, squirrel monkeys and rhesus macaques were noted to employ distinct vocalizations when communicating with young monkeys as opposed to older ones.

Separate research from the University of Florida underscores the benefits of baby talk. This suggests that it aids infants in producing their own speech. By imitating the sounds of a smaller vocal tract, adults may be guiding infants to understand how words should sound when vocalized by them.

The current study, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides compelling evidence of shared communicative behaviors between humans and dolphins, potentially opening new doors to understanding language evolution and development across species.

More about dolphin communication

Dolphins are well known for their advanced communication abilities. They use a variety of signals to communicate with each other and with the environment around them. Here are some key aspects of dolphin communication:

Acoustic signals

This is the most significant aspect of dolphin communication, which includes clicks, whistles, and pulse sounds.


Dolphins use clicks for echolocation. By emitting a series of clicks and listening to the echoes, they can identify and locate objects in their environment. This ability helps them find food and navigate their surroundings.


Dolphins use a series of unique whistles, often referred to as their “signature whistle,” to identify themselves. Each dolphin has a unique whistle that it uses much like a name. Dolphins also use whistles to express emotional states or intentions.

Burst-pulsed sounds

These complex sounds can signal social interactions and are often associated with aggressive behavior, like when asserting dominance or during conflict.

Visual signals

Dolphins use body movements as visual signals. This includes leaping out of the water, slapping the surface with their tails or pectoral fins, and even using their body postures. These behaviors can have various meanings like showing excitement, irritation, or as a way to get attention.

Tactile signals

Dolphins are also very tactile creatures. They frequently touch each other using their flippers as a form of social bonding or reassurance. This contact can also be a form of play or may have other social implications.

Chemical signals

Unlike many other animals, dolphins do not rely heavily on scent marking or pheromones for communication. They do have a sense of taste and can possibly use chemical cues in their environment, but this is a less understood aspect of their communication.

One fascinating aspect of dolphin communication is that different populations may have different “dialects” or variations in their acoustic signals. This reflects the cultural learning that happens within groups.

Additionally, there is ongoing research to understand if dolphins can understand syntax and symbols. This could further imply a higher level of linguistic complexity.


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