February 22, 2013 1:11 pm
“Flipper” likely is not a dolphin name of choice, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Rather, dolphins seem to refer to one another in series of clicks and squeaks. Whether dolphin vocalizations should truly be considered names and are used in a way comparable to humans remains contested, Wired writes, but these latest results suggest that they may.
Dolphins learn signature whistles from their mothers, and other dolphins in their pod will greet one another with these distinct whistles. Scientists wondered if dolphins were just mimicking one another or actually have a sort of back-and-forth dialogue.
To investigate this question, researchers used captured pairs of dolphins, which are held in separate nets for few hours so scientists can study them. The dolphins cannot see one another, but they can hear one another.
In their analysis, King and Janik showed that some of the communications are copies of captured compatriots’ signature whistles — and, crucially, that the dolphins most likely to make these were mothers and calves or closely allied males.
They seemed to be using the whistles to keep in touch with the dolphins they knew best, just as two friends might if suddenly and unexpectedly separated while walking down a street. Moreover, copying wasn’t exact, but involved modulations at the beginning and end of each call, perhaps allowing dolphins to communicate additional information, such as the copier’s own identity.
While the researchers cannot say for certain whether dolphins really do have individual labels for each other, they hope to use further experiments to better understand just how complex and intelligent dolphin societies may be.
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