Dolphins name themselves with a whistle

The marine mammals respond only to their own handles

ANIMAL HANDLES  Wild bottlenose dolphins (one shown) respond to hearing their "signature whistles," specific  high-pitched tunes that may serve as the animals' names.

Courtesy of V. Janik, University of St. Andrews

To call a dolphin, just whistle a squeaky shout-out.

Bottlenose dolphins answer to high-pitched bursts of sound — but each animal responds to only one specific trill, its “signature whistle,” Stephanie King and Vincent Janik of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland report July 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The signature whistle, a distinct tune each dolphin develops for itself and broadcasts to others, may act as a sort of audible nametag.

Scientists knew dolphins exchanged signature whistles when meeting at sea, but no one knew if the animals responded to these “names.” King and Janik recorded wild dolphins’ chirps and squeaks and then played the signature whistles back for the animals.

When dolphins heard their own signature whistles, they whistled the tune back, the pair found. Aside from humans, dolphins may be the only other mammals to name individuals.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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