Dolphin Names: Bottlenose Dolphins Use 'Signature Whistles' To Call Each Other By Name [STUDY]

By iScienceTimes Staff on July 22, 2013 4:43 PM EDT

dolphin
Bottlenose dolphins call to one another using "signature whistles," which function like names, a new study finds. (Photo: Reuters)

Dolphins use individualized whistles, or "names," to refer to one another, a new study finds.

In their study of 200 bottlenose dolphins, scientists from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland discovered that dolphins are the only nonhuman animals known to use names for one another.

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"It is the first evidence we really have of naming and labeling in the animal kingdom," said lead author Stephanie King of the Sea Mammal Research Unit in the School of Biology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Study co-author Vincent Janik, also from the University of St. Andrews, first discovered in 2011 that dolphins have "signature whistles" they use when they meet up. The whistles are a way of saying hello, sort of like everyone going around the room shaking hands.

Now Janik, along with King, has discovered that the dolphins use one another's "names" to call to and identify one another when they meet up.

In the study, King and Janik recorded the signature whistles of 12 dolphins. They then played back the signature whistle of each dolphin back to that dolphin, and recorded its response.

In eight of 12 cases, the dolphin called back when they heard their own signature whistle. In two of the 12 cases, the dolphin responded when it heard the signature whistle of one of the dolphins in its pod, or group of dolphins it travels with.

None of the dolphins responded to the signature whistle from an unfamiliar dolphin.

"It was really interesting to see how strong the response was," said King. "In most cases, when we played back a copy of an animal's signature whistle, it replied quickly and sometimes multiple times."

"Here, we show that wild bottlenose dolphins respond to hearing a copy of their own signature whistle by calling back," the researchers say in their study abstract. "Animals did not respond to whistles that were not their own signature. This study provides compelling evidence that a dolphin's learned identity signal is used as a label when addressing conspecifics. Bottlenose dolphins therefore appear to be unique as nonhuman mammals to use learned signals as individually specific labels for different social companions in their own natural communication system."

The study, titled "Bottlenose dolphins can use learned vocal labels to address each other," was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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