Bottle Nose Dolphins May Address Loved Ones by "Name"

By Pattie Dobranski

Humans may not be the only species that can answer the proverbial question, "What's in a name?"

A study published in a recent issue of "Proceedings of the Royal Society B", a British biological research journal, examines how bottlenose dolphins may share the ability to call the "names" of family and friends through distinctive whistles, rather than words.

25 Years of Research

While earlier research discovered bottlenose dolphins named themselves by emitting unique whistles that announce their presence, this new study suggests they mimic the whistles of others to seemingly call them by name.

For this study, researchers from the University of St. Andrews Sea Mammal Research Unit in Scotland assembled 25 years worth of acoustic findings on both wild bottlenose dolphins and captive males, all living in Florida, to draw these conclusions. They also found there was no difference in the development of the name calling between the captive and wild dolphins.

Across the Miles

The dolphins used this name calling technique when trying to reunite with a friend or family member across the ocean, the study explained. Incredibly, the name calling whistles were detected as far as 12.4 miles away. Scientists noted the ability to travel this distance was affected by the depth of the water and the frequency of the dolphin’s specific whistle.


Photo Credit: The Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education

Terms of Endearment

The name calling was never used in aggressive encounters, the study said, and was only offered to find loved ones. Further, dolphins even seem to apply inflection or an accent when calling others through mimicking the other dolphins' self-proclaimed names. This seems to show the dolphins were calling others and not just announcing their own names. Even though this all adds up to quite a complex form of communication among bottlenose dolphins, scientists are not ready to call these dolphin exchanges "speaking." Language currently remains a human-exclusive form of communication.

What’s on the Horizon?

The give and take between bottlenose dolphins continues to intrigue scientists. Right now, researchers are conducting audio experiments to gauge the reaction of wild dolphins to the recorded sound of their own whistle/name calling.

Classroom Discussion

  • Do you think the bottlenose dolphin name calling whistles are a language?
  • Why do you think this research is important to humans or other animals?