Dolphins, Like Humans, Call One Another By Name

Bottlenose dolphins copy and use signature whistles to communicate with others

Posted Feb 24, 2013

More and more scientific research clearly shows that nonhuman animals (animals) share various traits that have often been thought to be uniquely human (for a discussion and interview about research on chimpanzees please click here). One of these is language. Of course we are exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. Previously I've suggested that perhaps we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species and individual exceptionalism, moves that will force us to appreciate other animals for the individuals who they are, not who or what we want them to be.

Along these lines we now know, based on research by Stephanie King, a research fellow at University of St. Andrews and her colleagues, "that the bottlenose dolphins actually copy the signature whistle of other dolphins when separated from them. This finding, Dr. King says in Discovery News, 'supports our belief that dolphins copy another animal’s signature whistle when they want to reunite with that specific individual.'” This important study was a long-term project; Dr. King and her colleagues collected data around Sarasota Bay, Florida for 25 years (1984-2009). 

According to Dr. King, “A dolphin emits its signature whistle to broadcast its identity and announce its presence, allowing animals to identify one another over large distances and for animals to recognize one another and to join up with each other ... Dolphin whistles can be detected up to 20 km away (12.4 miles) depending on water depth and whistle frequency.  Various summaries of the groundbreaking research can be found here and the abstract for the original research paper can be seen here, the concluding sentence of which reads, "This use of vocal copying is similar to its use in human language, where the maintenance of social bonds appears to be more important than the immediate defence of resources." 

So, do dolphins and other animals have language?  

As data are collected that demonstrate that other animals have complex and highly sophisticated communication systems, researchers are more seriously considering the question of whether nonhumans possess linguistic skills that resemble those of human language (for a discussion of FOXP2, the "language gene", see this essay). And, it seems indeed they do.

Dr. King also notes that "captive dolphins can learn new signals and refer to objects and it may be that dolphins can use signature whistle copies to label or refer to an individual, which is a skill inherent in human language." And, the detailed empirical research conducted by Con Slobodchikoff on Gunnison's prairie dogs and his summary of what is known about social communication in many other species, shows clearly that a wide variety of animals have language (see his excellent book called Chasing Doctor Dolittle).

"The idea that other animals have language is a bridge back to the natural world'

Dr. Slobodchikoff's research shows clearly that the division between "us" and "them" (other animals) is one of degree, rather than kind, as famously stated by Charles Darwin when he discussed evolutionary continuity. So, claiming we are an exception, the only language bearing animals, is a myth that must be shelved. It's bad biology to rob other animals of their cognitive and emotional capacities. Slobodchikoff notes, "For us, the idea that other animals have language is a bridge back to the natural world ... "Us" and "Them" ... are not very different at all." (p. 264) Amen.

Stay tuned for more on the fascinating lives of other animals. Rapidly accumulating data show clearly that evolutionary continuity is the rule rather than the exception for a wide variety of cognitive and emotional capacities. We are not alone in these arenas. 

The teaser image can be seen here.

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