Animal Cognition

, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 17–26 | Cite as

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) calves appear to model their signature whistles on the signature whistles of community members

  • Deborah FrippEmail author
  • Caryn Owen
  • Ester Quintana-Rizzo
  • Ari Shapiro
  • Kara Buckstaff
  • Kristine Jankowski
  • Randall Wells
  • Peter Tyack
Original Article


Bottlenose dolphins are unusual among non-human mammals in their ability to learn new sounds. This study investigates the importance of vocal learning in the development of dolphin signature whistles and the influence of social interactions on that process. We used focal animal behavioral follows to observe six calves in Sarasota Bay, Fla., recording their social associations during their first summer, and their signature whistles during their second. The signature whistles of five calves were determined. Using dynamic time warping (DTW) of frequency contours, the calves’ signature whistles were compared to the signature whistles of several sets of dolphins: their own associates, the other calves’ associates, Tampa Bay dolphins, and captive dolphins. Whistles were considered similar if their DTW similarity score was greater than those of 95% of the whistle comparisons. Association was defined primarily in terms of time within 50 m of the mother/calf pair. On average, there were six dolphins with signature whistles similar to the signature whistles of each of the calves. These were significantly more likely to be Sarasota Bay resident dolphins than non-Sarasota dolphins, and (though not significantly) more likely to be dolphins that were within 50 m of the mother and calf less than 5% of the time. These results suggest that calves may model their signature whistles on the signature whistles of members of their community, possibly community members with whom they associate only rarely.


Bottlenose dolphin Vocal learning Whistle development Social influences on learning 



The authors would like to thank everyone who helped with this project, especially the interns: Kristine Jankowski, Leslie Burdett, Katie McHugh, Athena Rycyk, and Amy Whitt, as well as Stephanie Nowacek and the entire staff of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Project. We would like to thank Patrick Miller for all his help on acoustic data collection and for the use of his equipment, as well as Vincent Janik, Gary Stanbrough, Rebecca Thomas, M.J. Tucci, Karlen Wannop, and Stephanie Watwood. We would also like to thank Cannon’s Marina for their help with the boat. We are grateful to Jennifer Miksis, Laela Sayigh, Inês Mello, Mary Anne Daher, Mandy Hill, Lynne Williams, and Janet McIntosh for their help with obtaining signature whistles, and Michael Fripp for editing help. This research was funded by two grants from the NIH, grant no. 1-R01-DC04191-01, and NRSA grant no. 5-F32-DC00410-02 to D. Fripp. Mote Marine Laboratory provided a base of operations, and the Chicago Zoological Society and Dolphin Biology Research Institute provided partial support for the research vessel “Nai’a.” This research complied with the U.S. laws on animal research and was conducted under National Marine Fisheries Service General Authorization for Scientific Research no. 522-1435. This is submission number 10924 from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.


  1. Altmann J (1974) Observational study of behavior: sampling methods. Behavior 49:227–267Google Scholar
  2. Boughman JW (1998) Vocal learning by greater spear-nosed bats. Proc R Soc Lond B 265:227–233CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Buck JR, Tyack PL (1993) A quantitative measure of similarity for Tursiops truncatus signature whistles. JASA 94:2497–2506Google Scholar
  4. Caldwell MC, Caldwell DK (1965) Individualized whistle contours in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Science 207:434–435Google Scholar
  5. Caldwell MC, Caldwell DK (1972) Vocal mimicry in the whistle mode by an Atlantic bottlenosed dolphin. Cetology 9:1–8Google Scholar
  6. Caldwell MC, Caldwell DK (1979) The whistle of the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)—ontogeny. In: Winn HE, Olla BL (eds) Behavior of marine animals, vol 3. Cetaceans. Plenum, New York, N.Y., pp 369–401Google Scholar
  7. Caldwell MC, Caldwell DK, Tyack PL (1990) Review of the signature-whistle hypothesis for the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. In: Leatherwood S, Reeves RR (eds) The bottlenose dolphin. Academic, New York, N.Y., pp 199–234Google Scholar
  8. Fripp DR (1999) Techniques for studying vocal learning in bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. PhD dissertation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/Massachussetts Institute of Technology, Mass.Google Scholar
  9. Hodun A, Snowdon CT, Soini P (1981) Subspecific variation in the long calls of the tamarin, Saguinus fuscicollis. Z Tierpsychol 57:97–110Google Scholar
  10. Janik VM, Slater PJB (1997) Vocal learning in mammals. Adv Stud Behav 26:59–99Google Scholar
  11. Janik VM, Slater PJB (1998) Context-specific use suggests that bottlenose dolphin signature whistles are cohesion calls. Anim Behav 56:829–838CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Kroodsma DE, Baylis JR (1982) Appendix: a world survey of evidence for vocal learning in birds. In: Kroodsma DE, Miller EH (eds) Acoustic communication in birds, vol. 2. Academic, New York, N.Y., pp 311–337Google Scholar
  13. Miksis JL, Tyack PL, Buck JR (2002) Captive dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, develop signature whistles that match acoustic features of human-made model sounds. JASA 112:728–739CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Miller PJ, Tyack PL (1998) A small towed beamforming array to identify vocalizing resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) concurrent with focal behavioral observations. Deep-Sea Res 45:1389–1405Google Scholar
  15. Reiss D, McCowan B (1993) Spontaneous vocal mimicry and production by bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): evidence for vocal learning. J Comp Psychol 107:301–312CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Richards DG, Wolz JP, Herman LM (1984) Vocal mimicry of computer-generated sounds and vocal labeling of objects by a bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. J Comp Psychol 98:10–28CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Sayigh LS (1992) Development and functions of signature whistles of free-ranging bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. PhD dissertation, MIT/WHOI Joint Program. WHOI 92–37Google Scholar
  18. Sayigh LS, Tyack PL, Wells RS, Scott MD (1990) Signature whistles of free-ranging bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus: stability and mother–offspring comparisons. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 26:247–260Google Scholar
  19. Sayigh LS, Tyack PL, Wells RS, Scott MD, Irvine AB (1995) Sex difference in signature whistle production of free-ranging bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 36:171–177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Scott MD, Wells RS, Irvine AB (1990) A long-term study of bottlenose dolphins on the west coast of Florida. In: Leatherwood S, Reeves RR (eds) The bottlenose dolphin. Academic, New York, N.Y., pp 235–244Google Scholar
  21. Seyfarth RM, Cheney DL (1997) Some general features of vocal development in nonhuman primates. In: Snowdon CT, Hausberger M (eds) Social influences on vocal development. Cambridge University Press, New York, N.Y., pp 249–274Google Scholar
  22. Smolker RA, Pepper JW (1999) Whistle convergence among allied male bottlenose dolphins (Delphinidae, Tursiops sp.). Ethology 105:595–617CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Snowdon CT, Hausberger M (1997) Social influences on vocal development. Cambridge University Press, New York, N.Y.Google Scholar
  24. Tchernichovski O, Lints T, Mitra PP, Nottebohm F (1997) Vocal imitation in zebra finches is inversely related to model abundance. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 96:12901–12904CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Tyack PL (1997) Development and social functions of signature whistles in bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus. Bioacoustics 8:21–46Google Scholar
  26. Tyack PL, Sayigh LS (1997) Vocal learning in cetaceans. In: Snowdon CT, Hausberger M (eds) Social influences on vocal development. Cambridge University Press, New York, N.Y., pp 208–233Google Scholar
  27. Wang D, Wursig B, Evans WE (1995) Whistles of bottlenose dolphins: comparisons among populations. Aquat Mamm 21:65–77Google Scholar
  28. Watwood S (2003) Whistle use and whistle sharing by allied male bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. PhD dissertation, MIT/WHOI Joint ProgramGoogle Scholar
  29. Wells RS (1991) The role of long-term study in understanding the social structure of a bottlenose dolphin community. In: Pryor K, Norris KS (eds) Dolphin societies. University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., pp 199–235Google Scholar
  30. Wells RS (2003) Lessons from long-term study and life history. In: Waal FBM de, Tyack PL (eds) Animal social complexity: intelligence, culture, and individualized societies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp 32–56Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Deborah Fripp
    • 1
    • 6
    Email author
  • Caryn Owen
    • 2
  • Ester Quintana-Rizzo
    • 3
  • Ari Shapiro
    • 4
  • Kara Buckstaff
    • 5
  • Kristine Jankowski
    • 2
  • Randall Wells
    • 2
  • Peter Tyack
    • 4
  1. 1.Biology DepartmentWoods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionWoods HoleUSA
  2. 2.Sarasota Dolphin Research ProjectSarasotaUSA
  3. 3.College of Marine ScienceUniversity of South FloridaSt. PetersburgUSA
  4. 4.Biology DepartmentWoods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionWoods HoleUSA
  5. 5.Ocean Sciences DepartmentUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA
  6. 6.CarrolltonUSA

Personalised recommendations