FACT OF THE WEEK: Bottlenose dolphins may address each other by name!
MORE ON THIS: Recent research has suggested that bottlenose dolphins have individually unique signature whistles that are equivalent to human names. During the first few months of life, a dolphin will develop its own signature whistle made up of a series of sounds and notes. Dolphins will also adopt the signature whistle of other dolphins in the pod to identify and communicate with different individuals, specifically close associates or those with strong social bonds. When a dolphin emits its own signature whistle, a dolphin that is a close associate will reply with a copied version of the whistle with a few subtle alterations that differentiates the signature whistle from the copied whistle. This allows the second dolphin to relay information back to the first dolphin; the alterations to the whistle may also give information about who the second dolphin is.
Many species of dolphins live in fission-fusion societies, this means that the size and composition of the pod will change as time passes. When pods merge together, vocal signatures are exchanged in order to learn about the identities of individual members of the new pod. These exchanges are generally repeated several times during the interaction to either improve the probability of correct identification, or provide additional information with each exchange.
- Quick, N.J. and Janik, V.M. 2012. Bottlenose dolphins exchange signature whistles when meeting at sea. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279 (1738): 2539-2545.
- King, S.L. and Janik, V.M. 2013. Bottlenose dolphins can use learned vocal labels to address each other. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 110(32):13216–13221.
- King S.L, Sayigh L.S., Wells R.S., Fellner W., and Janik V.M. 2013. Vocal copying of individually distinctive signature whistles in bottlenose dolphins. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280:1-9.
Written by Patrice Hostetter