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Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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We Call Him Flipper. But What Do The Dolphins Call Him?

Jul 22, 2013
Originally published on July 22, 2013 9:02 pm

Dolphins are like humans in many ways: They're part of complex social networks and, just as in people, a dolphin's brain is big, relative to the size of its body. But there's something else, too — a study published Monday shows these acrobats of the sea use name-like whistles to identify and communicate with each other.

"In the underwater environment, animals use their own signature whistles to broadcast their identity and say, 'I'm here, I'm here,' " says Stephanie King, a marine biologist at University of St. Andrews and author of the study.

In the first few months of its life, every bottle-nosed dolphin develops its own unique whistle.

Scientists have known about these signature whistles for decades. And earlier this year, in a separate study, King and her colleagues showed that when bottle-nosed dolphins in captivity get separated from each other, they call out to their loved ones by imitating their whistles.

"They were calling the unique identity signal of a friend they wanted to reunite with," she says.

But because that study mostly involved pre-existing recordings, King couldn't tell whether the other dolphin really answered the calls. And she didn't know if this behavior happened in the wild.

To try to find out, she and a colleague recorded the identity whistles of 12 dolphins living off the east coast of Scotland. Then they modified those whistle sounds slightly so it would sound like a second dolphin was making the first dolphin's whistle sound. Then the researchers played back these modified whistles using underwater speakers.

"It was very exciting to see that every time a dolphin heard its signature whistle, it called back, sometimes multiple times," King says.

Not only did the dolphins call back, but they even swam toward the speakers that were playing the sound. It was behavior you might expect if two friends were trying to find each other in a crowd. King and her colleague have published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This new study shows that when a dolphin hears an imitation or copy of its own signature whistle, it will respond immediately," says Peter Tyack another marine biologist at University of St. Andrews.

But are these whistles the dolphin version of human names? That, Tyack says, is harder to tell. "To get at the issue of naming," he says, "we have to go beyond the function of the communication to a more cognitive question."

For example, he says, does hearing another dolphin's whistle bring up in the dolphin's mind an image of that particular animal? These are obviously hard questions to answer, Tyack says, but they're well worth asking.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: Dolphins are like humans in many ways, the size of their brains, for example, and their complex social networks. And now, a new study tells us about another similarity. As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee explains, dolphins may be using something like names to identify one another.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Every bottlenose dolphin has its own unique whistle. And it sounds something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLPHIN WHISTLE)

DR. STEPHANIE KING: In the underwater environment, animals use their own signature whistles to broadcast their identity, to say, I'm here, I'm here.

CHATTERJEE: Stephanie King is a marine biologist at University of St. Andrews in Scotland and an author on the new study. Earlier this year, King and her colleagues showed that when bottlenose dolphins in captivity get separated from each other, they call out to their loved ones by imitating their whistles.

KING: They were calling the unique identity signal of a friend they wanted to reunite with.

CHATTERJEE: But what she couldn't tell was whether the other dolphin really answered the calls and also whether this happened in the wild. To try and find out, she and a colleague recorded the identity whistles of 12 dolphins living off the east coast of Scotland, then they modified those whistles slightly so it would sound like another dolphin making the sound and played back these modified whistles using underwater speakers.

KING: And it was very, very exciting to see that every time a dolphin heard a copy of its signature whistle, it called back, sometimes multiple times.

CHATTERJEE: Not only did the dolphins call back, King says they even swam towards the source of the sound, the speakers. It was what you might expect if two friends were trying to find each other in a crowd. Peter Tyack is a marine biologist also at University of St. Andrews.

DR. PETER TYACK: This new study shows that when a dolphin hears an imitation or a copy of its own signature whistle, it will respond immediately.

CHATTERJEE: He says both of King's recent studies show that dolphins do label each other with these whistles. But are these whistles the dolphin version of human names? That's harder to tell, says Tyack.

TYACK: To get at the issue of naming, I think we need to get beyond the function of the communication to a more cognitive question.

CHATTERJEE: For example, he says, does hearing someone's whistle bring up in a dolphin's mind an image of that particular animal? Questions like these might be hard to answer, but Tyack says it's well worth trying. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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