Dolphins Call Each Other By Name

By Jessica Rawden 2013-07-24 18:08:31
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Sometimes the awesomeness of nature is a little overwhelming. Recently, scientists from St. Andrews University were studying bottlenose dolphins off of the east coast of Scotland when they found that the mammals used signature high-pitched sounds and noises to attract the attention of other dolphins nearby. Using plenty of research as a backdrop, the scientists soon determined that the noises they were hearing were actually dolphins calling to one another by name.

Scientists have known for a while that dolphins are capable of making tons of different sounds in order to communicate. In the past, humans have observed dolphins making noises for echolocation or to attract other dolphins to a food source. However, the name noises are a signature capability, one that biologist Vincent Janik tells The Guardian is important because it means dolphins can not only copy sounds, they can also relate a specific sound back to a specific member of a dolphin community. This is something that Janik says is important to humans, as well.
"If we look at complex ability in communication in human language, one of the key features that is important to us is that we can copy sounds, we can invent new sounds. We can then use those sounds and attach some kind of meaning to them and use them to refer to objects and to refer to external things in the world."

During the course of the St. Andrews University observation period, the scientists looked at a community of 150-180 dolphins. Initially, the objective was to observe and record as many whistles as possible. Once the whistles were captured on tape, the scientists would play them back for smaller groups of dolphins. During the tenure of the study, the scientists found that dolphins would respond and even sometimes approach the humans when their individual whistle was played. When other dolphin’s whistles would be played by the scientists, the dolphins would ignore the sound.

Plenty of mammals, including dolphins, have shown a propensity for intelligence and empathy. However, a signature identifier is considered unique among nonhuman mammals, as well.
"The interesting thing about these is that they are not voice recognition. In humans you can have different people say the same word and I'd still be able to tell who's speaking. What we also do is have names, so they are very different call types. The dolphins do the same thing; they're developing a completely new call type, a melody or whistle, which is not dependent on their voice features."

Most of the time, we’d rather consider nonhuman mammals to be cute and amusing, rather than intelligent, like this sea lion chilling in a kayak or this fox getting a special marshmallow treat from its owner. However, the awesome feats and intelligence some mammals are able to pull together is more than a little inspiring.

You can read more from the study in the journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/ Willyam Bradberry
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