Intricate communication strategies seen in male dolphin alliances

A bottlenose dolphin. File pic. Source Getty ImagesMore

"However with male bottlenose dolphins, it's the opposite - each male retains a unique call, even though they develop incredibly strong bonds with one another".

Scientists from the University of Western Australia, University of Zurich and the University of MA studied 17 adult male dolphins in Shark Bay, finding they, much like humans, use names to keep track of multiple relationships.

"[The] signature whistle is a rare example of a non-human mammal using a learned vocal label that can be considered somewhat comparable to a human name", the study said.

Pairs and trios of dolphins joined together to form larger alliances of 10-14 to help each other defend females from competing alliances or to steal females from those other groupings. Analysis determined that males in an alliance kept their distinct vocal labels, which suggests that these calls may serve a objective similar to an individual name.

Dr King said these "names" help males keep track of their many different relationships; who their friends are, who are their friends' friends, and who are their competitors. "Dolphins use them to introduce themselves or even copy others as a means of addressing specific individuals", King continued.

"Convergence onto shared or similar identity signals has been documented in allied male bottlenose dolphins", the study said.

"Retaining individual names is more important than sharing calls as it allows dolphins to negotiate a complex social network of cooperative relationships".

Dolphin alliances in Shark Bay are also characterised by high levels of synchronous behaviour.

It's a well-known fact in the marine biology community that male bottlenose dolphins sometimes form long-lasting cooperative alliances with each other.

Interestingly, researchers also found no evidence of any genetic relatedness influencing signature whistle similarity between males.

Dolphins are intelligent creatures that communicate with high-frequency whistles and are capable of forming strong relationships.

A bottlenose dolphin signature whistle. It allows male dolphins to recognise many different friends and rivals in their social network.

"At the moment we're looking more closely into the relationships among the males in an alliance to find out whether or not they're equally strong between all the individuals involved", explains Krützen. Each male dolphin will still retain their individual names despite being in the group.

The bottlenose dolphin is the best-studied dolphin species, so researchers aren't sure yet if this behavior also exists in other species - but it very well might.

So how do these males keep track of all these different relationships, and how do they maintain such strong social bonds?

Scientists recorded the dolphins' chatter to identify individual males then checked to see if they all used a unique "word" call when communicating with other males about a dolphin with which they shared a relationship. That is something that would be worth investigating.

She found that dolphins responded to recordings of their own signature whistle, but not those of other dolphins.

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