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Anim Behav. 1999 Jan;57(1):41-50.

Individual recognition in wild bottlenose dolphins: a field test using playback experiments.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences and Center for Marine Science Research, University of North Carolina at Wilmington


We conducted playback experiments with wild bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, to determine whether there is sufficient information in their individually distinctive signature whistles for individual recognition. We conducted experiments with members of a resident community of dolphins in waters near Sarasota, Florida, during temporary capture-release projects. We used a paired playback design, wherein the same two whistle sequences were predicted to evoke opposite responses from two different target animals. This design controlled for any unknown cues that may have been present in the playback stimuli. We predicted that mothers would respond more strongly to the whistles of their own independent offspring than to the whistles of a familiar, similar-aged nonoffspring. Similarly, we predicted that independent offspring would respond more strongly to the whistles of their own mother than to the whistles of a familiar, similar-aged female. Target animals were significantly (P<0.02) more likely to respond to the predicted stimuli, with responses measured by the number of head turns towards the playback speaker. In bottlenose dolphin societies, stable, individual-specific relationships are intermixed with fluid patterns of association between individuals. In primate species that live in similar 'fission-fusion' type societies, individual recognition is commonplace. Thus, when taken in the context of what is known about the social structure and behaviour of bottlenose dolphins, these playback experiments suggest that signature whistles are used for individual recognition. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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