It's not uncommon in dolphin society for males to form long-lasting alliances with other males, sometimes for decades. Analysis determined that males in an alliance kept their distinct vocal labels, which suggests that these calls may serve a goal similar to an individual name.
"These alliances retain individual vocal labels, or "names", which help males keep track of their many different relationships: who are their friends, who are their friend's friends, and who are their competitors".
Dolphins however are able to retain unique signature whistles.
"Convergence onto shared or similar identity signals has been documented in allied male bottlenose dolphins", the study said. This is because across the animal kingdom it is very common for pairs or groups of animals to make their calls more similar when they share strong social bonds. "This can be seen in some parrots, bats, elephants and primates, and represents a means of advertising the strength of their relationships and their group membership" Dr King said.
"Retaining individual names is more important than sharing calls as it allows dolphins to negotiate a complex social network of cooperative relationships", King explained. This shows the importance of names among the dolphin community. Most of the males in this study had signature whistles that were notably different from those of both first-order and second-order alliance partners.
A bottlenose dolphin signature whistle. Stephanie King, of the University of Western Australia, and colleagues wanted to better understand the role that vocal communication plays in coordinating complex social behaviors - such as cooperation - in bottlenose dolphins.
To explore the role of these "vocal signals", the team measured the similarity of the signals between and out of alliances of male dolphins.
She also learned that the dolphins can mimic each other's whistles, seemingly to address or call out to one another.
So how do these males keep track of all these different relationships, and how do they maintain such strong social bonds?
These dolphins aren't born with their own signature whistle. After studying the dolphins for many years, it became apparent that males formed long-term cooperative alliances with one another, but it was not understood that they used vocal signals to maintain these relationships.
Dr King theorised it could have to do with the very high density of dolphins there, and the higher number of males than females.
"This included petting, stroking and performing synchronous behaviours", Dr King said.
She said the next step was to investigate the relationships more closely to find whether cooperative relationships within alliances were equal.
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