Phonic Lips: Scientists’ Newest Dolphin Discovery

Even though dolphins don’t talk like we do, they still have incredible ways to communicate with each other. Before recently, scientists had few details about how dolphins (and their relatives) made their wide array of sounds. But new research offers a fascinating explanation, and phonic lips may be the answer. Read on to learn a bit more about one of the most beloved creatures of Myrtle Beach marine life.


We should give a quick explainer about echolocation before getting into the newest research. Toothed cetaceans – a group of animals that includes dolphins, sperm whales, and porpoises, among others – communicate through echolocation.

Echolocation occurs when an animal makes a noise and listens to the echoes that result when the sound waves hit surrounding items or walls. The animal can create a mental picture of what’s nearby and can sense where to find food, even in the darkest of conditions.


We’ve understood the concept of echolocation for a while, but new research provides details about just how toothed cetaceans make their unique noises. Typically, these marine creatures use loud clicks for echolocation and reserve their softer noises and whistles for communicating with other members of their species.

We now know that toothed cetaceans produce these noises through phonic (or sonic) lips, which are made of fat and connective tissue. According to Peter Madsen, whale biology expert and co-leader of the study, “The phonic lips open for about one millisecond, and when they slap back together they create a tissue vibration that forms a very loud click in the water in front of the whale that is used to echolocate prey down to more than 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) depth.”

Humans are able to reach different vocal registers when singing, speaking, or whispering. Toothed cetaceans can do the same. They use their phonic lips to reach the “fry register” for clicking noises (the lowest tones for people), the “chest register” for bursts (the normal speaking voice for people), and the “falsetto register” for whistling (and the highest tones for people).


In Myrtle Beach, we’re proud to offer a safe place for bottlenose dolphins and other marine life to grow and thrive. This incredible new discovery is sure to lead the way to learning even more about our friends under the sea! See dolphins up close and learn all about these magnificent creatures on a dolphin tour with Blue Wave Adventures.

Blue Wave Adventures has long been one of the most trusted companies for dolphin tours in Myrtle Beach. Our excursions provide amazing views from every seat and are perfect for guests of all ages. You’ll get a one-of-a-kind look at Myrtle Beach and its surroundings, and as you sail along, your captain will explain all about the plants and animals you see along the way. Contact us today to learn more and to book your next trip!

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