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What's in a voice? Dolphins do not use voice cues for individual recognition

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Most mammals can accomplish acoustic recognition of other individuals by means of “voice cues,” whereby characteristics of the vocal tract render vocalizations of an individual uniquely identifiable. However, sound production in dolphins takes place in gas-filled nasal sacs that are affected by pressure changes, potentially resulting in a lack of reliable voice cues. It is well known that bottlenose dolphins learn to produce individually distinctive signature whistles for individual recognition, but it is not known whether they may also use voice cues. To investigate this question, we played back non-signature whistles to wild dolphins during brief capture-release events in Sarasota Bay, Florida. We hypothesized that non-signature whistles, which have varied contours that can be shared among individuals, would be recognizable to dolphins only if they contained voice cues. Following established methodology used in two previous sets of playback experiments, we found that dolphins did not respond differentially to non-signature whistles of close relatives versus known unrelated individuals. In contrast, our previous studies showed that in an identical context, dolphins reacted strongly to hearing the signature whistle or even a synthetic version of the signature whistle of a close relative. Thus, we conclude that dolphins likely do not use voice cues to identify individuals. The low reliability of voice cues and the need for individual recognition were likely strong selective forces in the evolution of vocal learning in dolphins.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1067-1079
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number6
Early online date8 Aug 2017
StatePublished - Nov 2017

    Research areas

  • Dolphin, Playback experiment, Non-signature whistle, Voice cues, Individual recognition

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