Dolphins, according to recent scientific research, have their own names and they recognize and call each other by name.
The marine mammals have unique whistles to identify each other, and a research team from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland has discovered that they respond when they hear their own call played back to them.
Stephanie King, a marine biologist at University of St. Andrews and author of the study, said:
In the underwater environment, animals use their own signature whistles to broadcast their identity and say, ‘I’m here, I’m here.”
In the first few months of its life, every bottle-nosed dolphin develops its own unique whistle.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
According to Dr Vincent Janik, from the university’s Sea Mammal Research Unit:
(Dolphins) live in this three-dimensional environment, offshore without any kind of landmarks and they need to stay together as a group.
“These animals live in an environment where they need a very efficient system to stay in touch.”
Though it had been long-suspected that dolphins use distinctive whistles in much the same way that humans use names, there had not been definitive proof until now.
Previous research had established that these calls were used frequently. Dolphins that were in the same groups were able to learn and copy the unusual sounds.
However, this is the first time that the dolphins’ response to being addressed by their “name” has been studied.
According to Dr Vincent Janik at the University of St Andrews:
Most of the time they can’t see each other, they can’t use smell underwater… and they also don’t tend to hang out in one spot”
To validate their theory, researchers recorded a group of wild bottlenose dolphins, capturing each animal’s signature sound.
They then played these calls back using underwater speakers.
Dr. Janik explained what happened next:
We played signature whistles of animals in the group, we also played other whistles in their repertoire and then signature whistles of different populations – animals they had never seen in their lives.”
According to the researchers, they found that individuals only responded to their own calls, by sounding their whistle back.
The team believes the dolphins are acting like humans, in that when they hear their name, they answer.
This skill, Dr. Janik theorizes, probably came about to help the animals to stick together in a group in their vast underwater habitat.
Most of the time they can’t see each other, they can’t use smell underwater, which is a very important sense in mammals for recognition, and they also don’t tend to hang out in one spot, so they don’t have nests or burrows that they return to.”
This is the first time this has been seen in an animal, the researchers believe, although other studies have suggested some species of parrot may use sounds to label others in their group.
Understanding how this skill evolved, in parallel but very different groups of animals, according to Dr. Janik, could tell us more about how communication developed in humans.
Written by: Douglas Cobb