Dolphins 'know each other by name'

Shark Bay dolphins use 'unusual' method of keeping track of friend or foe

Scientists from The University of Western Australia, University of Zurich and the University of MA, studied 17 well-known adult male dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia, where males are known for their formation of alliances. These alliances can last decades, and have been the subject of intense study for decades as well. They compared vocalizations from different alliances and found that males in an alliance retain vocal labels that are quite distinct from one another.

"The names help males keep track of their many different relationships; who their friends are, who are their friends' friends, and who are their competitors".

"They sometimes also copy the signature whistle of another animal when they are not around but we don't know what that means yet".

It has been widely known since the 1960s that both male and female bottlenose dolphins have their signature whistles, but King discovered the calls were tailored to individual dolphins when she started playing the whistles back to the animals themselves. That's in contrast to findings in many other species where individuals with close relationships converge on shared vocalizations as a way of advertising their membership to that partnership or group.

Such vocal convergence is found in many animals including parrots, songbirds, bats, elephants and primates.

Dr King said while that was already known, researchers were interested in how those male dolphins were able to identify each other and work out who was a friend or foe.

Signature whistles of two different male dolphins from Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Just like in early human populations, it seems that dolphins use individual vocal labels to maintain recognition within complex social structures. It's not clear if this behavior is restricted only to bottlenose dolphins.

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She also learned that the dolphins can mimic each other's whistles, seemingly to address or call out to one another.

Dolphins may be more similar to humans than previously thought, with a University of Western Australia (UWA)-led study on Friday confirming that the ocean creatures use individual "names" to identify their friends and rivals among social networks.

"For pairs of males that form alliances in Florida, it appears they do make their identity signals more similar".

To explore the role of these "vocal signals", the team measured the similarity of the signals between and out of alliances of male dolphins. Scientists aren't sure how dolphins get their names but they develop signature whistle during their first few months of life.

Dr King theorised it could have to do with the very high density of dolphins there, and the higher number of males than females.

Dr King said tactile contact was "similar to holding hands or hugs in human society".

She said the next step was to investigate the relationships more closely to find whether cooperative relationships within alliances were equal.

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