In scientific circles, it’s common practice to give individual wild animals under observation identifying numbers rather than names, such as the well-known, numbered wolves in Yellowstone National Park. But a recently published study provides evidence that we may be a bit limited in our thinking about how nonhuman animals see and distinguish themselves. It turns out that bottlenose dolphins have personal “names”—and that they use them much as we humans do.
We all know stories about people who have given pet names to farm or research animals and then subsequently have been unable to see those animals as food sources or as mere research tools. So, if we now have proof that wild creatures, such as bottlenose dolphins, have and use “names,” will it change how we see and treat them?
“Hello, my name is Sam, and I’m a dolphin”
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on July 22, 2013, a group of scientists on a boat off eastern Scotland joined up with a group of wild dolphins. When one of the dolphins announced itself with its signature whistle—the equivalent of “Sam!,” for instance—the researchers recorded that sound. Later, when the team played that same “Sam” call back to the dolphins by underwater speaker, a significant portion of the time the dolphin identified as Sam responded with the same call. Like us, when the dolphin heard its “name,” it answered as if to say, “yes, I’m here.”
In addition, when the scientists played recordings of whistles of familiar dolphins from the same population, the dolphins slightly responded. But they did not respond at all to unfamiliar dolphin whistle-names from a different population.
The idea that dolphins have a name in the form of a whistle has been around since the 1960s. But this new study takes the theory a step further by asserting that a dolphin will respond when it hears the sound of its own, signature whistle, repeating that whistle back in a way that seems to compellingly indicate that the dolphin, indeed, uses the sound as a “name.”
Without the sorts of landmarks that we typically use to navigate our way through unfamiliar cities and countries, the potential for dolphins to get lost in the vast sea is extremely high. The ocean is noisy, and visibility is poor. It’s speculated that having this kind of efficient communication system helps keep dolphin mothers and babies and their tight-knit communities together. Being able to call a dolphin by name could be crucial when a member of a group is missing or when competition between two groups of male dolphins erupts. Calling out a dolphin’s signature whistle-name could be a request for an individual’s help.
Be careful: I have a long memory
In a related study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B on August 7, 2013, it was found that dolphins remember the names of other dolphins for decades.
A research team from the University of Chicago studied 43 captive bottlenose dolphins of varying ages that had been shuffled around from tank to tank. The dolphins had all lived with each other at some point, but for different lengths of time. Some had lived together for a few months and some for years, while others lived together at the time of testing or hadn’t seen each other for decades.
Individual whistle-names were recorded, as well as the whistle-names of a few dolphins that were unfamiliar to the test dolphins. When the whistle-names were played back though an underwater speaker, the dolphins responded very obviously to the whistle-names of past friends, approaching the speaker eagerly, hovering around it, sometimes even trying to whistle back at it. But when an unknown dolphin’s whistle-name was played, the animals showed far less interest. The dolphins even displayed an amazing length of memory; one remembered a tank mate from more than 20 years prior.
In the T.S. Eliot poem “The Naming of Cats,” (which the Broadway musical Cats was partially based on), the poet says that cats have three different names: the one their human families use daily, a more dignified name that never belongs to more than one cat and one that “no human research can discover—but THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS and will never confess.”
Perhaps we’ve just discovered, as Eliot describes them, those “deep and inscrutable, singular” dolphin names.
Do you think it’s possible that many other nonhuman animal species use “names” to recognize each other, or is this something unique to dolphins and those animals we deem highly intelligent? Could this signal a breakthrough in our ability to truly communicate with other species?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
If you want to see bottlenose dolphins up close in the wild, check out Natural Habitat Adventures’ classic Galapagos adventure in the Galapagos Islands, where dolphins are often seen playing in the Bolivar Channel between the islands of Fernandina and Isabela.