‘Non-Human Persons’ – Could Dolphins Be Calling One Another By Name?

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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.


There is a declaration of rights for dolphins which highlights the intelligence of these creatures, and is fighting to stop cetaceans from being kept in captivity. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), says:

“Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphins should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”

The rights that the Ministry has listed are below:

The Declaration

1. Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
2. No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
3. All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment.
4. No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or individual.
5. Cetaceans have the right to the protection of their natural environment.
6. Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures.
7. The rights, freedoms and norms set forth in this Declaration should be protected under international and domestic law.


Simply put, the Ministry wants them to have the right to be left alone – requiring only that we stop killing them and making them suffer. What could this mean in the grand scheme of things?

It would undoubtably make it illegal to keep cetacean’s in captivity if the declaration is accepted. It could also have wider implications, regarding their natural habitat. Fishing regulations could be tightened and even controls on sea pollution might be impacted by recognising life beneath the waves as the equivalent of a non-human person. One scientist, John C. Lilly, even goes as far as to suggest that there is an international ‘cetacean nation’ which should be untouched by humans. You can hear him speak about it here.

Lilly had the following to say about why he feels cetaceans should be recognised as intelligent beings and given rights to match this.

To insure the survival of cetaceans, in light of the continuous onslaught by their terrestrial counterparts, human beings, it is essential that cetaceans be recognized for what they truly are: non-terrestrial intelligent lifeforms. Lifeforms which do indeed have the same inherent rights that human beings have to survive and to live in peace.

To attain this goal, it is essential that the cetaceans attain a status in human society in which they are recognized as the intelligent lifeforms that they are. It is with this goal in mind that a Cetacean Nation is now being initiated.


What are your thoughts? Do you think that cetaceans really understand as much as some studies would have us believe? Even if they are as sensitive and intelligent as we are starting to learn, do they really deserve to be afforded a declaration of rights? Or do you think it is barbaric to lock these creatures up for our own entertainment, when they have an understanding of the suffering that they are experiencing? We would love to hear from you.

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  1. The audio wasn’t the best and it was kind of hard to understand every word Mr. Lilly said but from what I did make out, this man is brave, enlightened and wise and not the type of common human being one would meet in the streets. I was kind of in awe of his experiences, perhaps a little jealous too that he had reached all these states of consciousness and has access to all this information and experiences. Of course I resonate with his point of view. This morning I opened up an email from the NRDC who sued the Navy for their underwater activities with sounds. A judge ruled that what they are doing is illegal. Now the Navy will have to suspend their underwater activities with sonar that harm whales and dolphins. Coincidence? I think not.. lols!

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