Dolphins Have Names for Each Other


Dolphins Have Names
iStock/Andrea Izzotti

A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, revealed startling behavior about our marine mammal cousins: bottlenose dolphins recognize signature whistles of other dolphins whom they know, and may even mimic them.

The researchers found that the bottlenose dolphins “extract identity information from signature whistles, even after all voice features have been removed from the signal,” which helps them to form different types of social relationships. When calling other dolphins by their “names,” researchers noted variations, including personal attributes of the dolphin calling out, which could suggest they were sharing additional information. Think of it as if you just locked your keys in the car how you might call out to your spouse, or if a child had wandered off. There’s more information in how you call someone’s name than just the name itself.

While the researchers say there’s more to study, they do believe what they’ve observed is rare in the animal world. The ability for animals to communicate names and information through language is a pretty small circle of species.

And what this indicates, of course, is that there are likely myriad complex animal relationships we may not ever fully comprehend, such as bees‘ “hive mind,” how ants send signals, or why elephants mourn deaths of others for so long. But it does further bring into question human dominion over animals and the justifications for doing so.

As our food systems rely more heavily on animals than ever before in history, it’s worth recognizing the potential for these animals to comprehend and respond to their circumstances. Pigs, for example, are actually more intelligent than the average dog. We don’t need much convincing of a dog’s ability to reason and communicate with us. In fact, for many of us, the conversations are as clear as those with another human.

It’s reasonable too to consider that as our own human intelligence, consciousness, and awareness evolves, so too may our fellow earthlings be adapting and learning at a rapid pace. This TED talk suggests a human kinship with dolphins is more likely than with chimpanzees. And even as countless animal and insect species are becoming extinct around the planet, many more are thriving in this changing world, and wouldn’t it be a lot more fun if they all had names, too?

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.