Scientists Say Dolphins Respond to Individual Names

Posted on July 23, 2013

Bottlenose Dolphins St Andrews


Scientists at the University of St Andrews say bottlenose dolphins can use signature whistles like humans use names. The research was carried out by marine biologists Dr. Stephanie King and Dr. Vincent Janik who conducted sound playback experiments with wild bottlenose dolphins on the east coast of Scotland. Earlier work published by these researchers showed dolphins can copy the signature whistles of their close relatives and friends.

The researchers say signature whistles make up about 50% of a dolphin's whistles and broadcasts its identity to others. The new study tests whether animals that are addressed with copies of their signature whistles really react to them.

The researchers followed groups of wild dolphins and recorded their signature whistles using a novel signature identification method. The researchers then played back either a computer version of a dolphin's signature whistle, or control whistles of either an unfamiliar dolphin from a different population or a familiar dolphin from the same population. The researchers say each dolphin only reacted when hearing the computer version of its own signature whistle, but not to the other whistles played back to it.

Dr. King says in a release, "Animals have been found to use calls to label predators or food but these calls are inherited and not influenced by learning. The use of new or learned sounds to label things is rare in the animal kingdom. However, it is ubiquitous in human society and at the heart of human language. There are good data showing the ability to invent new sounds and copy them in dolphins and this led us to design our experiments."

Photo: Vincent M. Janik/University of St. Andrews