Now, an analysis of whistles recorded from hundreds of wild bottlenose dolphins confirms that they can indeed “name” each other, and suggests why they do so—a discovery that may help researchers translate more of what these brainy marine mammals are squeaking, trilling, and clicking about.
“It’s a wonderful study, really solid,” says Peter Tyack, a marine mammal biologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom who was not involved in this project. “Having the ability to learn another individual’s name is … not what most animals do. Monkeys have food calls and calls that identify predators, but these are inherited, not learned sounds.” The new work “opens the door to understanding the importance of naming.”
Scientists discovered the dolphins’ namelike whistles almost 50 years ago. Since then, researchers have shown that infant dolphins learn their individual whistles from their mothers. A 1986 paper by Tyack did show that a pair of captive male dolphins imitated each others’ whistles, and in 2000, Vincent Janik, who is also at St.
Andrews, succeeded in recording matching calls among 10 wild dolphins “But without more animals, you couldn’t draw a conclusion about what was going on,” says Richard Connor, a cetacean biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Why, after all, would the dolphins need to copy another dolphin’s whistle?