Male Dolphins Use Names to Keep Track of Their Friends

Dolphins are known for making all sorts of noises, and for using individual names for each other, but new research has highlighted just how important these names are for males when it comes to keeping track of their social networks.

Previous research has found that within the first few months of their lives, dolphins will get a “signature whistle,” or name, and it will stay with them, while both males and females use these names to talk to each other.

While a lot of animals will change their calls to resemble those of others in their group, according to a study published in the journal Current Biology that isn’t the case for dolphins. The researchers from the University of Western Australia who are behind the study have found that these names are important, and they’re especially important for males.

“We found that male bottlenose dolphins that form long-term cooperative partnerships or alliances with one another retain individual vocal labels, or ‘names,’ which allows them to recognize many different friends and rivals in their social network,” said Dr. Stephanie King, the lead author of the study and a marine biologist at the UWA. “Our work shows that these ‘names’ help males keep track of their many different relationships: who are their friends, who are their friend’s friends, and who are their competitors.”

To come to this conclusion, researchers used microphones to identify the signature whistles of 17 adult males, who made up six smaller groups within three larger groups of wild bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia’s Shark Bay – who all used their individual names.

“Retaining individual names is more important than sharing calls as it allows dolphins to negotiate a complex social network of cooperative relationships. This formation of alliances within alliances is very unique and it’s the only example we have in the animal kingdom outside of humans,” said King.

These dolphins are known to form tight-knit alliances with each other that can last lifetimes. To reinforce these bonds, which are sort of the dolphin version of a bromance, they’ll also spend a lot of time touching each other with their pectoral fins, or doing some synchronized swimming.

Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute who wasn’t involved in the study, applauded the study, telling Gizmodo that it emphasizes how self-aware they are, and how important individuals are to each other.

“Generally speaking, biologists find that animals change their vocalizations over time to fit in with whatever group they join as adults—they use vocalizations as a means of recognizing other group members, so being part of the group is more important than recognizing an individual per se. It also makes it simpler intellectually to only have to remember the ‘secret handshake’ rather than all the individual group members,” said Rose. “This study shows that these dolphins don’t do that—for them, long-term recognition of ‘Tom,’ ‘Dick,’ and ‘Harry’ as individuals is what matters, rather than more generic recognition that a dolphin is in their gang. They remember Tom, Dick, and Harry, AND that they are members of their gang—they don’t need the secret handshake at all. That’s more sophisticated intellectually.”

While this study has offered more interesting insight into the lives of dolphins, there’s more to come. King added in a statement that they’ll continue to try to learn more about these relationships to get a better understanding of the “political landscape of dolphin alliances.”

For now, what they have found highlights just how intelligent and socially complex this species is, and how important each individual is to them. Hopefully studies like this will help more people appreciate the reasons it’s so important to protect them in the wild where they belong.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

94 comments

KimJ ManyIssues
KimJ ManyIssues15 hours ago

very interesting. tfs

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Bearaabout a month ago

most animals are smarter than most people realise

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Bearaabout a month ago

your cat gives you a name and says it when she want to get your attention. She may also say something that sounds like your human name. She can also say something that sounds like her own name if you have more than one cat and ask her who she is.

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Sue L
Sue L2 months ago

I have always loved dolphins. They are amazing creatures!

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Angela J
Angela J2 months ago

Thanks

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ANA MARIJA R
ANA MARIJA R2 months ago

"For now, what they have found highlights just how intelligent and socially complex this species is, and how important each individual is to them. Hopefully studies like this will help more people appreciate the reasons it’s so important to protect them in the wild where they belong." Shared. Thank you.
#DolphinProject #‎tweet4taiji‬ #‎FromTaijiToTanks‬ #‎Tokyo 2020‬ Taiji dolphins

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Kate G
Kate G2 months ago

beatiful creatues

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Elisabeth T
Elisabeth T2 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Georgina M
Georgina Elizab M2 months ago

We insist on using animals for our entertainment, I think it's time we consider them one of us.

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Sheri P
Sheri P2 months ago

Fascinating!

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