Scientists have discovered that dolphins call out for each other using a signature kind of whistle--much like humans address one another using names.
We’ve known for years that dolphins are smart cookies. From old fisherman's tales of dolphins protecting stranded sailors from sharks to seeing them perform complicated tricks, dolphins are right up there with dogs and parrots in terms of intelligence.
On top of that, researchers with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland believe they’ve proven that dolphins give each other names.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that if they recorded bottlenose dolphin whistles and played them back via an underwater speaker, certain dolphins would respond by whistling back. Scientists isolated the calls based on a signature whistle--their “name”--and found that only those specific dolphins responded.
"These animals live in an environment where they need a very efficient system to stay in touch," said Dr. Vincent Janik, one of the study's lead authors and speaking to the BBC. "Most of the time they can't see each other, they can't use smell underwater, which is a very important sense in mammals for recognition, and they also don't tend to hang out in one spot, so they don't have nests or burrows that they return to."
In order for dolphins to organize themselves and not get lost from the group, researchers believe they developed this signature whistle as a naming convention. This allows for dolphins to track one another down if they get separated by calling out that dolphins name.
More research is needed to confirm their findings, but if so, dolphins may be the first species besides humans to give each other names. Previous research has also identified certain parrots as possibly using signature whistles in much the same way, but that research has yet to be verified.
Scientists have long suspected that dolphins have their own underwater language they use to communicate, and being able to isolate names may be the first step into a broader conversation with our underwater cousins.
Who knows, maybe we will soon be able to communicate with the dolphins, and they'll have names for us too!