Dolphins give each other "names" to recognize friends

Desiree Burns
June 10, 2018

Within their population, male dolphins enter into complex, multi-level alliances ranging from intense, lifelong friendships to loose groups. They do this by touching each other and practicing acts like swimming together.

Male bottlenose dolphins have their own individual "names", which they use to communicate with each other and build a social circle, an Australian study has found.

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

From a small research vessel, the scientists observed the dolphins and used underwater microphones to record them.

They found that males within an alliance use vocal labels that are quite distinct from one another, indicating that they serve a similar objective to names among humans.

This photo shows allied male bottlenose dolphins swimming together. "Dolphins use them to introduce themselves or even copy others as a means of addressing specific individuals", King continued.

A trio of allied male bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) from Shark Bay, Western Australia.

The finding is unusual as groups of animals usually make just their calls similar in their social group, as seen in some birds, elephants and primates, Dr King said.

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Dolphin alliances in Shark Bay are also characterised by high levels of synchronous behaviour. These names are used to be able to tell friends and foes apart from each other.

"With male bottlenose dolphins, it's the opposite - each male retains a unique call, even though they develop incredibly strong bonds with one another".

Interestingly, researchers also found no evidence of any genetic relatedness influencing signature whistle similarity between males. In other words, dolphins that were related didn't necessarily have similar names. Most of the males in this study had signature whistles that were notably different from those of both first-order and second-order alliance partners. Stephanie King, of the University of Western Australia, and colleagues wanted to better understand the role that vocal communication plays in coordinating complex social behaviors - such as cooperation - in bottlenose dolphins.

The alliances can be so close that the male dolphins will begin to touch each other. Each male dolphin will still retain their individual names despite being in the group.

"It will be interesting to reveal whether all cooperative relationships within alliances are equal or not", says King.

So how do these males keep track of all these different relationships, and how do they maintain such strong social bonds?

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. There may be other vocalisations that do not encode identity that might be favoured by particular alliances.

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