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Researchers recorded dolphins’ distinct whistles and then played them back to the underwater mammals.
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Flip Nicklin / Minden Pictures / National Geographic Stock
Hey Joe, How’s It Going?
A recent study suggests that dolphins call each other by name

By Jennifer Marino Walters | for  

Bottlenose dolphins are known for the high-pitched whistles they make to communicate. But what are they saying? Scientists now think some of those whistles might actually be unique (one of a kind) names for themselves and other dolphins.

Scientists already knew from past studies that each dolphin has a “signature whistle” it uses when it’s in a group, and that dolphins respond to the whistles of other dolphins they know. A recent study suggests that when a dolphin hears the sound of its own whistle—whether recorded or copied by another dolphin—it often repeats the whistle back, as if to say, “Yes, I’m here!”

“Our results present the first case of naming in mammals, providing a clear parallel between dolphin and human communication,” says Vincent Janik, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is one of the scientists who conducted the research, which was published last summer in a scientific journal.


The scientists followed a group of wild dolphins off eastern Scotland for four months and recorded their signature whistles. Researchers then created computerized versions of the whistles that they could play back to the dolphins. But they removed the vocal characteristics of the dolphins to make sure the animals wouldn’t respond only because they recognized their own voices.

The scientists then played the whistles using an underwater speaker. In most cases, the dolphins responded to their own signature whistles by whistling them back, often immediately. The dolphins responded a little bit to recordings of other dolphins from the same group but didn’t respond at all to unfamiliar dolphins from a different group.

The findings suggest that not only do dolphins recognize a familiar dolphin’s signature whistle, but they also use another dolphin’s signature whistle to call out to them, the same way humans call each other’s names.

This is the first study testing wild dolphins’ responses to signature whistles. It brings up the question of how common naming is throughout the animal kingdom. Past studies have suggested that parrots, for instance, may engage in similar naming behaviors.

Stephanie King, the study’s lead scientist, says, “I think we can really open the door now and look at this in more animals.”