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Dr. Stephanie King, University of St Andrews – Dolphins and Names

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Stephanie King of the University of St Andrews explains recent findings that point to the use of names by dolphins. 

Stephanie King is an honorary research fellow at the University of St Andrews where her doctoral research investigated the temporal and social aspects of vocal interactions in bottlenose dolphins. Specifically, she examined the individually distinctive signature whistle and its use in vocal copying and vocal matching interactions among both captive and wild dolphins. 

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Dr. Stephanie King – Dolphins and Names

The addressing or labelling of individuals with learned signals is ubiquitous in human society. It allows individuals to solicit the attention of a social companion or to direct information towards an intended recipient. Interestingly the ability to address individuals with learned signals may not be limited to humans. In animal communication research, vocal labelling often refers to incidents in which an animal consistently uses a specific acoustic signal when presented with a specific object or class of objects. Animals have been found to use calls to label predators or food but these calls are inherited and not influenced by learning.

In recent years some interesting studies have raised the possibility of natural labelling with learned signals in both dolphins and parrots. Bottlenose dolphins are capable of vocal production learning and can even learn to use arbitrary signals to report the presence or absence of objects. Bottlenose dolphins are one of the very few species in the animal kingdom that use vocal learning to develop their own unique vocal signature.  Each dolphin produces its own signature whistle that describes its individual identity and unlike other animals this identity is encoded independently of voice features, similar to human names. The copying of signature whistles may therefore allow animals to label or address one another. 

Our recent work tested whether animals that are addressed with copies of their signature whistles really react to them and therefore whether addressing really works in dolphins. Interestingly our playback experiments with wild dolphins showed that animals do reply and call back when they hear a copy of their signature whistle but not to the other whistles we played back to them. Our findings therefore provide compelling evidence that dolphins can use their signature whistles to label or address one another and therefore presents the first case of naming in mammals, providing a clear parallel between dolphin and human communication.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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