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Scientists Address Wild Dolphins By Their Natural “Names”

We have given names to many bottlenose dolphins, from Flipper to Darwin. But in the wild, these animals have their own badges of identity—signature whistles that they develop during their early years and that are unique to them.

These whistles seem a lot like human names. The comparison isn’t perfect, but it’s now stronger than ever after Stephanie King and Vincent Janik managed to address individual wild dolphins with recordings of their own signatures. The dolphins responded by calling back, but only when they heard their own whistle. “I think our results do present the first case of naming in mammals, providing a clear parallel between dolphin and human communication,” says King.

The evidence that dolphins use signature whistles like names has been building since they were first discovered in the 1960s. They can convey a dolphin’s identity, as well as its mood and motivation. Individuals invent their own whistles at a few months of age, possibly with some influence from their mums. They’ll keep the same call for decades, although males sometimes change theirs to resemble the whistle of a new ally.

The whistles are clearly important, since they account for half of all the calls that wild dolphins make. They can mimic each other’s signatures, but they usually call with their own, perhaps to broadcast their identity and keeping in touch while swimming.

Working out how dolphins actually use these signatures in the wild has been very hard. These are fast-moving animals, whose calls blend together into a cacophonous mess. But Janik has developed a way of identifying individual whistles based on their distinctive rhythms. He can now follow free-swimming pods, record their calls using underwater microphones, and parse out the signatures of different individuals.

In 2011, he used this technique to show that groups of bottlenoses exchange signature whistles when they meet up—a ritualised greeting, like saying hello or shaking hands. When I covered that study, I ended with: “[Janik] also wants to try some playback experiments – the cornerstone of animal communication research – to see if he can provoke a specific response by playing a chosen signature whistle.”

And: check.

The duo worked with a group of Scottish bottlenoses that Janik’s been studying since 1994. Once they spotted the group, they recorded its signature whistles and made computer-generated copies on the spot, filtering out other distinctive features of the animals’ voices. They then played the synthetic whistles back at the pod.

It wasn’t easy—dolphin groups fuse and split all the time, and if that happened, the duo had to start from scratch. “There were times when we had everything ready to start a playback, and the dolphin group separated and the playback had to be aborted,” says King.

But when it worked, it really worked. When the animals heard their own signature, they usually called back with the same whistle type within seconds. This hardly ever happened if they heard the signature of a dolphin from another group. “It was really interesting to see how strong the response was,” says King. “In most cases, when we played back a copy of an animal’s signature whistle, it replied quickly and sometimes multiple times.”

Of course, it’s impossible to say who’s actually replying—it could be the signature’s owner or another dolphin mimicking the same call. However, we know that wild dolphins don’t mimic each other’s signatures that frequently; it happens, but not nearly often enough to explain the strong responses that King and Janik saw.

“Our new study really demonstrates that signature whistles are used like names,” says King. “It’s now clear that signature whistles have meaning, in that they’re labels for particular individuals and can be used by animals to address a social companion.” (Admittedly, there’s still no direct evidence that dolphins are using these whistles to call to their peers, but given the evidence we have, that’s not an unreasonable assumption.)

So, dolphin signature whistles are exclusive to individuals, rather than being part of a shared repertoire. They’re social sounds, unlike bird songs which are largely used to attract mates or defend territories. And they’re learned; many animals like birds and monkeys use distinctive calls to refer to specific objects (like different types of predators), but these are innate and inherited behaviours. “The use of new or learned sounds to label an object or class of objects is rare in the animal kingdom,” says King.

This combination of traits makes the signature whistles unique in the non-human world, at least for now. It’s possible that parrots and other birds might use similar calls. Various species can learn new sounds and use them to label objects, mimic each other’s sounds, tell individuals apart based on their distinctive calls, or refer to family members with specific sounds. If we want to look for other examples of natural animal names, the parrots are a good bet.

Reference: King & Janik. 2013. Bottlenose dolphins can use learned vocal labels to address each other. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1304459110

8 thoughts on “Scientists Address Wild Dolphins By Their Natural “Names”

  1. Horses recognize other individuals in the herd by their unique whinnies. I could identify the horses I owned by them, without seeing the individual. Of course, the uniqueness is conferred by genetic/developmental differences in the conformation of the skull and nasal cavities. They learn to recognize these signals while young, and herd members use them to orient and locate when separated and out of visual contact. I imagine this phenomenon is common among mammal species, but it appears dolphins have taken it to another level.

  2. If any further proof was needed, this it: dolphins are sentient entities with a sense of self. But despite the evidence, this is unlikely to lead to any greater legal protection for dolphins due to humans as a whole finding it inconvenient and uncomfortable to imagine any animal as a “person” owed commensurate protection under the law.

  3. Not having read the entire paper, it sounds as if the following conclusions can be (and have been) drawn:
    1) dolphins name themselves, by generating these whistles when they’re a few months old
    2) male dolphins will occasionally rename themselves when they partner with another male
    3) when the researchers played back individual whistles, the exchange went something like this:
    Researcher’s playback: Angus!
    Other dolphins: ?
    Dolphin named Angus: I’m Angus! I’m Angus! I’m Angus!

    It seems to me that these conclusions are a bit of a stretch, based on the information here. All we know for sure is that each dolphin has a signature whistle, and that they respond to it when they hear it from somewhere else, by “playing it back”. Whether these whistles correspond to an identifier that the dolphins use in connection with an idea of “self” is going to require more work, I think.

  4. How do you see this as needing more research to see if the whistle is used with an idea of “self”? The individual is responding only to that whistle. That is a pretty self explanatory display of the idea of self.

  5. I believe dolphins recognize themselves on closed circuit videos, making them like great apes and humans — and possibly elephants if I remember correctly — who are sufficiently aware of themselves as objects to recognize their own image in the mirror. Other animals cannot do that, as far as we know. The fact that they also give themselves names is remarkable and wonderful evidence of a degree of self-awareness that we as humans should respect immensely — and more reason than ever to protect them from harm.

  6. I am convinced butcher birds do it too. Often about 5 or so notes in a tuneful sequence that doesn’t seem to vary. And they have a repertoire of short tunes.

  7. i love animals and i get siced to learn about them especially bottlenose dolphins i love them they are my favorite animals and i love to learn about these kind of things

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