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August 12, 2009

Talking Dolphins

When people talk, we tend to use short words as much as possible. For instance, I've never heard anyone say, "May I have permission to obtain a dessert composed of milk, sugar, and several additional ingredients?" However, "Can I go get an ice cream?" is a very common question at my house. This rule of communication is known as the law of brevity. Both the listener and the speaker want to put in as little effort to get the point across. As it turns out, dolphins also use the law of brevity when they communicate.

Dolphins use about 30 non-verbal behaviors to communicate. In a recent study, ecologists David Lusseau and Ramon Ferrer-i-Cancho broke up these behaviors into simple units. Jumping and turning are considered individual units. Butting heads, on the other hand, is made up of four units: both dolphins jumping, and then both dolphins using their heads. The team analyzed the behavior of the dolphins and determined that they used simple, one unit behaviors more frequently than the complex behaviors with more units.

This is the first time scientists have seen evidence of the law of brevity in non-human communication. However, with this evidence of it's use among dolphins, many suspect that it is common in other species as well. While it doesn't prove that another species is using language, it is one of the first steps to finding evidence of language outside of humans. And the possibilities that opens are staggering.

Credit: Discovery News- Dolphin Speak Relies on Brevity