, Volume 33, Issue 6, pp 393-402

Use of signature whistles during separations and reunions by wild bottlenose dolphin mothers and infants

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We examine the contexts and patterns of “signature” whistle production by wild bottlenose dolphin mother-infant pairs (Tursiops spp.) to gain insight into the functional significance of whistles. Results are based on focal observations and simultaneous recordings of underwater vocalizations. Whistles occur primarily when mother-infant pairs are separated, and the probability of whistles increases with distance of separation. The timing of whistles during separations varies, but whistles tend to be produced in repetitive series and are generally concentrated toward the later stages of the separation, i.e., during the process of reunion. Although we focused on infants, mothers do not appear to whistle during separations as frequently as infants. Infant whistles may function to facilitate reunions by conveying information to the mother concerning the infant's motivation to reunite and/or its location. Infant whistles could induce a cooperative response from the mother including approach, slowing to allow the infant to catch up or whistling. Highly individualized signature whistles may be particularly useful in a fission-fusion society in which individuals (mothers and infants as well as adults) join and leave temporary parties in a fluid manner, yet maintain consistent, long-term associations with particular individuals.

Correspondence to: R.A. Smolker