More evidence of dolphins’ complex social life

20th Sep 2013

Two pieces of research published this summer have added further evidence to demonstrate the sophisticated level of dolphins’ social interactions. One of the studies appears to show dolphins calling each other by name. While the other shows dolphins can remember each other for decades.

Jason Bruch from the University of Chicago studied 43 dolphins in a breeding programme that involved them being moved between different tanks containing others. His research compared signature whistles dolphins made when they were familiar with their tank mates and compared it to the whistles they made with unfamiliar dolphins.

- Common Dolphin (Elfyn Pugh)

This research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences in July, showed social recognition can last for at least 20 years. The results suggest good memory is important in a fluid social system like the structures inhabited by whales and dolphins. It was the first big study to look into long term memory of cetaceans. Remembering each other for a long time could help them create alliances for hunting and make judgements on social threats.

A team from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews in Scotland has shown Bottlenose dolphins respond when called by ‘name’. Scientists have believed for some time that dolphins use whistles for each other in similar way to humans using names. While previous studies showed dolphins could learn and copy these sounds, the latest research shows dolphins responding to their own call when it was played back to them.

Dr Vincent Janik, one of the scientists behind this research, said:
"These animals live in an environment where they need a very efficient system to stay in touch… 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."

Get involved:

• Find out more about the latest research and read the study about dolphins’ social memory.
• Read the study into dolphins’ names in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
• Become a citizen scientist and train with ORCA. Your research with us can help protect whales and dolphin habitats and provides vital information about cetacean behaviour.