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Discovery: Bottlenose dolphins proven to use names

Stephanie L. King and Vincent M. Janik from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of Saint Andrews reported the first definite proof that bottlenose dolphins use and respond to distinctive whistles that are similar to names as used by humans in the July 22, 2013, issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Range of common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus).
Range of common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus).The Emir This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
A bottlenose dolphin leaping in the North Sea.
A bottlenose dolphin leaping in the North Sea.Image courtesy of Vincent M. Janik, University of St Andrews.

The researchers followed a group of wild bottlenose dolphins off the east coast of Scotland in the Moray Firth and in Saint Andrews Bay from June to August 2001 and May to September 2010. The scientists recorded a synthetic version of each dolphin’s signature whistle.

The scientists then tested the dolphin's response to different whistles. The dolphins were exposed to signature whistles from themselves, from group members the dolphins were familiar with, and from dolphins that were not part of the group.

Wild bottlenose dolphins responded to their own signature whistles by calling back, but did not respond to the other whistles.

The findings suggest that dolphins might use signature whistles as labels to address or contact individuals of the same species, and the use of identity signals mirrors the human convention of naming individuals. The behavior is called vocal labeling in humans.