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How dolphins could be communicating with their snot

You’ve probably heard those cute chirps that dolphins make, but how do they make them? Turns out the answer might be dolphin snot.

Most scientists believe those echolocation sounds are created when air forced through their nasal passage causes lumps of tissue to collide and vibrate. But the details of what happens in the nasal passage remain a mystery. 

Since we can’t directly observe the nasal cavity of a dolphin while it’s emitting the sounds, Aaron Thode, a research scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography created a computer model that emulates a dolphin’s nasal passage.

With the computer model, he was able to artificially reproduce a dolphin’s wide repertoire of sounds. And the model suggests that the clicking noise occurs when the nasal passage tissue collides then pulls apart.

But to produce the highest frequency clicks that a dolphin typically makes, they had to create a “stick and snap” motion for the model. Thodes posits that a dolphin’s nasal passage has to be coated with a sticky substance to cause a similar motion so that when the tissues pull apart, it creates a louder “snap”—much like pulling apart silly putty.

And that something sticky could very likely be their snot, according to Thode. 

All of this, however, is still speculation. More study is needed to confirm the result and to make sure their model accurately predicts dolphins’ sound production.

If future research confirms this hypothesis, it will close the gap in our limited understanding of echolocation.