Dolphins have unique whistle-names for each other

Mother and juvenile bottlenose dolphins head t...

Mother and juvenile bottlenose dolphins – Wikipedia

Dolphins it seems are not just self-aware but identify specific individuals with specific whistles. And that would mean not just having a sense of self-identity but also of having a “naming” convention and of communication. And if whistle-names exist then whistle-words and language are also already present or certainly not very far away. Researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit, School of Biology at the University of St. Andrews have just published a study of bottle-nosed dolphins.

Stephanie L. King and Vincent M. Janik, Bottlenose dolphins can use learned vocal labels to address each other, Published online before print July 22, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1304459110PNAS July 22, 2013

Abstract: In animal communication research, vocal labeling refers to incidents in which an animal consistently uses a specific acoustic signal when presented with a specific object or class of objects. Labeling with learned signals is a foundation of human language but is notably rare in nonhuman communication systems. In natural animal systems, labeling often occurs with signals that are not influenced by learning, such as in alarm and food calling. There is a suggestion, however, that some species use learned signals to label conspecific individuals in their own communication system when mimicking individually distinctive calls. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are a promising animal for exploration in this area because they are capable of vocal production learning and can learn to use arbitrary signals to report the presence or absence of objects. 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. Here, 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. 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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