Dolphins may call each other by name (but let's face it, nicknames would be more impressive)

Researchers show that dolphins respond to their own signature whistles

Credit: Image credit: Flickr/WWARBY

Bottlenose dolphins may use their personal "signature whistles" as the equivalent of a name, Scottish researchers say. In a study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, biologists Stephanie L. King and Vincent M. Janik of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews write that the bottlenose dolphins "develop their own unique identity signal, the signature whistle. This whistle encodes individual identity independently of voice features. The copying of signature whistles may therefore allow animals to label or address one another." Addressing each other is fine, but labeling is just wrong! Was it Kierkegaard or Mike Myers who said, "Once you label me, you negate me"? This surely must hold true in the dolphin world. The researchers recorded each dolphin's signature whistle and then played it back to them. And that's when all the name-calling started:

We show that wild bottlenose dolphins respond to hearing a copy of their own signature whistle by calling back. Animals did not respond to whistles that were not their own signature. This study provides compelling evidence that a dolphin’s learned identity signal is used as a label when addressing conspecifics (members of the same species). Bottlenose dolphins therefore appear to be unique as nonhuman mammals to use learned signals as individually specific labels for different social companions in their own natural communication system.

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