In nature, dolphins 'whistle' by name

Jul 22, 2013 by Kerry Sheridan

Wild bottlenose dolphins design unique signature whistles to identify themselves, and they answer when a close cohort calls them by name, researchers said Monday.

A study of 200 off the eastern coast of Scotland found that they are the only non-human mammals to use the names of those in their close circles to get each other's attention.

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

"I think it draws some quite interesting parallels between dolphin and , which is something people had thought was the case but hadn't been experimentally proven until now," she told AFP.

Scientists have previously found that each dolphin creates his or her own signature whistle, or name, in the first few months of life.

Then, they spend a lot of time swimming around and announcing themselves.

About half of a wild dolphin's whistles are its own signature whistle, King said.

But King and her co-author Vincent Janik wondered what would happen if a dolphin heard someone else calling out his or her signature whistle.

So they recorded a group of dolphins and played back the sounds of their name whistles, one by one.

"Interestingly, the animals would only respond and only react when they heard their own whistle," said King, whose study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a US journal.

"They would then call back very quickly and sometimes multiple times, and they did not respond that way to any of the other whistles we played."

Researchers tried different ways of playing back the sound, both by preserving the voice of the dolphin and by stripping all voice features so it would sound like another dolphin calling out a specific name whistle.

They also played control whistles of unfamiliar dolphins from different populations, as well as the signature from the same population.

"When an animal hears a copy of its whistle it will call back, it will reply very quickly and it doesn't do that for any other whistle type," said King.

"The results were striking," she added. "We actually saw a really strong response. The animals would always call back, sometimes multiple times to hearing their own whistle."

Other animals, including songbirds, bats and parrots, have been shown to be capable of copying sounds in their environment and developing a distinctive repertoire of calls.

But only parrots and dolphins use labels that they have learned for other objects or creatures.

King said her research shows that dolphins call each other by name in their own social circles, such as between mother and calf or from one male friend to another.

"Animals are really using this when they want to reunite with a specific individual," said King.

Since appear to be whistling their own names about half the time, the next big question is to figure out what else they are talking about, said King.

"We don't know what the other 50 percent is used for," she told AFP. "That is the next step, really, for dolphin communication research."

Explore further: Vietnam's taste for cat leaves pets in peril

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The old grey whistle test

Feb 20, 2013

(Phys.org)—Dolphins mimic those closest to them as a way of getting in touch, according to the latest research.

Dolphin whistles are unfit for porpoise

Feb 29, 2012

Bottlenose dolphins have whistles which they use to exclusively greet other members of their species, marine biologists in Scotland reported on Wednesday.

Dolphins use diplomacy in their communication

Jun 09, 2010

Until now, the scientific community had thought that whistles were the main sounds made by these mammals, and were unaware of the importance and use of burst-pulsed sounds. Researchers from the Bottlenose ...

Scientists reveal dolphins' diplomatic social behaviour

Jun 28, 2010

Scientists from the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI) on the island of Sardinia off the coast of Italy have published the most complete repertoire ever of sounds made by bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops ...

Recommended for you

Breakthrough in coccidiosis research

18 hours ago

Biological researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) are a step closer to finding a new cost-effective vaccine for the intestinal disease, coccidiosis, which can have devastating effects on poultry ...

Vietnam's taste for cat leaves pets in peril

23 hours ago

The enduring popularity of "little tiger" as a snack to accompany a beer in Vietnam means that cat owners live in constant fear of animal snatchers, despite an official ban.

New species of mayfly discovered in India

Jul 28, 2014

Scientists have discovered a new species of mayfly in the southern Western Ghats, a mountain range along the west coast of India. In fact, this is the first time that any mayfly belonging to the genus Labiobaetis has be ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dbsi
not rated yet Jul 23, 2013
".... A study of 200 bottlenose dolphins off the eastern coast of Scotland found that they are the only non-human mammals to use the names of those in their close circles to get each other's attention.... "

So you really gathered evidence, that all other non human mammals can not, by one study on one species?

Macrocompassion
not rated yet Jul 23, 2013
Dolphins are not unique in being animals able to recognize their call-sign. Female cows are responsive when the dairyman calls them by name to enter the milking parlour from the holding bay outside.
Macrocompassion
not rated yet Jul 23, 2013
and there is a poem about Mary calling the cattle home across the sands of Dee. So this is not a new phenomenon.