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Dolphins Use ‘Baby Talk’ With Their Young

Dolphins engage in 'baby talk' with their young, adjusting their whistles
Dolphins engage in ‘baby talk’ with their young, adjusting their whistles. Credit: ymvf / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

New research suggests that dolphins can adjust their communication just like parents and people do when talking to young children. According to a recent study, female bottlenose dolphins modify their vocalizations when they are in the presence of their offspring.

By analyzing recordings of the whistles, the researchers could detect changes in the sounds produced by the dolphins in different situations: when they were alone, swimming with other adult dolphins, or accompanied by their offspring.

Alterations in whistles

Interestingly, the findings revealed that the female dolphins exhibited alterations in their signature whistles when interacting with their young ones.

Specifically, the whistles had higher maximum frequencies and more comprehensive frequency ranges when the mother dolphins were in their offspring’s presence compared to when they were not.

This study sheds light on the sophisticated communication abilities of dolphins and highlights the unique ways in which they adapt their vocalizations based on their social context. The research provides valuable insights into the fascinating world of these marine creatures and deepens our understanding of their complex communication systems.

According to Laela Sayigh, a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and co-author of the study, dolphins utilize these whistles as a way to maintain awareness of each other’s presence.

It’s like they are periodically saying, “I’m here, I’m here.” The whistles serve as a means of communication and help dolphins stay connected within their social group.

Patterns of the whistles

In the study, every dolphin mother exhibited a fascinating pattern: they raised the pitch of their signature whistle when interacting with their offspring. They expanded the range of sounds they produced.

Peter Tyack, a biologist from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and co-author of the study, explained that this change in pitch and tone, observed around the young calvesn be likened to “motherese” or child-directed communication.

In a human context, motherese refers to a specific way of speaking that parents use to engage with their babies. It is believed to enhance attention, strengthen the bond, and aid in language development.

The researchers find it intriguing that dolphins, humans, and even zebra finches, which are vastly different species, have independently evolved a similar communicative strategy. This concept, known as convergent evolution, raises the possibility that motherese or similar forms of communication serve essential functions across various species.

However, the researchers acknowledge that further investigation is needed to understand the purpose and effects of motherese in dolphins fully.

Timeframe of the study

The study extended over more than thirty years, during which scientists employed specialized microphones to record the signature whistle sounds of the same group of wild dolphins in the targeted Florida bay.

Throughout the study, the dolphins were observed in different years, some accompanied by their calves while others were alone.

Although the researchers discovered changes in the pitch of the dolphins’ vocalizations, the exact reasons for employing child-directed communication across species remain uncertain. Several possibilities have been suggested, including vocal learning, fostering social bonds, directing messages to specific individuals, or aiding in the identification of the caller.

Alternatively, it is plausible that this type of communication serves no specific function. Further research is necessary to unravel these observed communication patterns’ precise purpose and implications.

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