You have probably heard on news reports and in movies the telltale clicks, whistles and squeaks of ‘Dolphin Speak’. It is generally considered that these sounds, while used to communicate with one another, are a form of echolocation, which allow the cetaceans to navigate and find food. However, research has suggested that there could be more to it than that. A study conducted in 2013 by Stephanie King, a biologist from St Andrew’s University in Scotland, has analysed Vocal copying of individually distinctive signature whistles in bottlenose dolphins. It was found that bottlenose dolphins may recognise the signature whistles of other dolphins that they are familiar with.
“They use these when they want to reunite with a specific individual. It’s a friendly, affiliative sign.” ~ Stephanie King
The following excerpts are from the study.
Vocal learning is relatively common in birds but less so in mammals. …..vocal learning also allows signal copying in social interactions. Such copying can function in addressing or labelling selected conspecifics….addressing with learned signals is very much an affiliative signal.
With the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) copying occurred almost exclusively between close associates such as mother–calf pairs and male alliances during separation and was not followed by aggression.
We found no evidence for the use of copying in aggression or deception. This use of vocal copying is similar to its use in human language, where the maintenance of social bonds appears to be more important than the immediate defence of resources.
Research was even conducted while the bottle nose dolphins were unable to see one another. The cetaceans continued to communicate without visual cues and seemed to understand one another. The fact that the copying was not followed by aggressive behaviour meant shows that the ‘language’ is not being used as simply a territorial show or challenge. It even seems more than a mating call between male and female.
The pairings seen most frequently were between mother and calf, and ‘friendly’ males. As quoted in the excerpt, this is highly unusual, especially for mammals – except of course for humans. It seems to be another string in the bow of the case for Dolphins being classified as non-human persons – a concept that more and more people are beginning to support. In addition to these findings that Dolphins may be able to call one another by name, there are other facts that supports some scientists desire to classify them as such.
Cetacean brains are almost as big as human brains, when scaled for size. They have the ability to recognise themselves in a mirror, use tools to hunt with and they also grieve for their dead.
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