The much-loved marine mammals are notoriously intelligent and it has long been suspected that dolphins use distinct whistle-like sounds to communicate.
But new research suggests that their communication skills are even more sophisticated than previously thought.
Each individual animal has a unique ‘name’ they use to detect one another with, much like humans do, according to scientists in Scotland.
A research team from University of St Andrews found that dolphins use a unique whistle-like sound to identify each other. Upon hearing their unique call ‘played back’ to them, the mammals respond.
According to one of the university’s sea mammal researchers, Dr Vincent Janik, dolphins live in a vast three-dimensional offshore environment and without landmarks they need a way to stay together as a group in this sizeable habitat:
“Most of the time they can’t see each other, they can’t use smell underwater, which is a very important sense in mammals for recognition, and they also don’t tend to hang out in one spot, so they don’t have nests or burrows that they return to,” Janik said.
“These animals live in an environment where they need a very efficient system to stay in touch,” he added.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first of its kind. Previous research had monitored the frequency of the calls made by dolphins and the ability for them to mimic and replay sounds heard.
However, this is the foremost investigation into how the mammals address one another with individual ‘names’.
Researchers recorded a group of wild bottlenose dolphins in an attempt to capture the animals’ ‘signature sound’:
“We played signature whistles of animals in the group, we also played other whistles in their repertoire and then signature whistles of different populations – animals they had never seen in their lives,” explained Dr Janik.
The research team found the dolphins reacted much like humans: answering when hearing their name, responding to their own calls by sounding their whistle ‘name’ back.
Scientists hope research into how animals develop communication skills will shed some light on our understanding of how communication has evolved in humans too.