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Dolphins Use Whistles to Call Each Other by Name

Three bottlenose dolphins are seen at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill., May 14, 2013. Researchers say dolphins can call to each other by name through whistling. (Chicago Zoological Society)
Dolphins call each other by names, according to a new study.

The study of 200 bottlenose dolphins indicated that they are the only animals other than humans to use individual names, according to the research from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

In study, co-authors Vincent Janik and Stephanie L. King reported that dolphins have “signature whistles” they use as greetings when meeting up. The researchers say individual dolphins have individual whistles or “names.”

The two researchers recorded the whistles of 12 dolphins and played the whistles back to each dolphin to record their reactions.

According to the study, in eight of 12 cases, the dolphin replied when they heard their own whistle. In two cases, the dolphin responded to the whistle of a dolphin from its own pod--the group of other dolphins it travels with.

The study said none of the dolphins responded to the sound of a dolphin it did not know.

"Here, we show that wild bottlenose dolphins respond to hearing a copy of their own signature whistle by calling back," the researchers say in their study abstract. "Animals did not respond to whistles that were not their own signature. This study provides compelling evidence that a dolphin's learned identity signal is used as a label when addressing conspecifics. Bottlenose dolphins therefore appear to be unique as nonhuman mammals to use learned signals as individually specific labels for different social companions in their own natural communication system."

The study, "Bottlenose Dolphins Can Use Learned Vocal Labels to Address Each Other," was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.