Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 199, Issue 6, pp 479-489

First online:

Communication in bottlenose dolphins: 50 years of signature whistle research

  • Vincent M. JanikAffiliated withSea Mammal Research Unit, School of Biology, University of St Andrews Email author 
  • , Laela S. SayighAffiliated withBiology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) produce individually distinctive signature whistles that broadcast the identity of the caller. Unlike voice cues that affect all calls of an animal, signature whistles are distinct whistle types carrying identity information in their frequency modulation pattern. Signature whistle development is influenced by vocal production learning. Animals use a whistle from their environment as a model, but modify it, and thus invent a novel signal. Dolphins also copy signature whistles of others, effectively addressing the whistle owner. This copying occurs at low rates and the resulting copies are recognizable as such by parameter variations in the copy. Captive dolphins can learn to associate novel whistles with objects and use these whistles to report on the presence or absence of the object. If applied to signature whistles, this ability would make the signature whistle a rare example of a learned referential signal in animals. Here, we review the history of signature whistle research, covering definitions, acoustic features, information content, contextual use, developmental aspects, and species comparisons with mammals and birds. We show how these signals stand out amongst recognition calls in animals and how they contribute to our understanding of complexity in animal communication.


Tursiops truncatus Animal communication Individual recognition Playback Vocal learning