Dolphin Moms Use 'Baby Talk' With Calves

Their whistles are higher-pitched when addressing their young ones
By Steve Huff,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 30, 2023 2:52 PM CDT
Dolphin Moms Use 'Baby Talk' With Calves
Dolphins swim in open waters off Sarasota Bay, Florida.   (Sarasota Dolphin Research Program via AP)

Baby talk isn't just for humans and our kids—or pets. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests dolphin mothers also use a form of "baby talk" when communicating with their young through their distinctive whistles. Researchers found that female bottlenose dolphins adjust their tones when addressing their calves, vocalizing higher pitches and cycling through a wide range of sounds, reports ScienceNews. "The idea that there might be similar forces driving [parentese] in such different species is just really cool," says study co-author Laela Sayigh of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "They're periodically saying, 'I'm here, I'm here.'"

The researchers found that these whistle modifications occurred consistently among the 19 mothers in the study when they were with their young—but not when they were alone or with other adults. One theory is that modifications may help young dolphins learn to vocalize, as with humans and certain other animals such as gorillas, per National Geographic. Marine biologist Janet Mann, who wasn't involved in the study, tells the AP that the whistles are "really important" since they let baby dolphins know, "'Oh, Mom is talking to me now'—versus just announcing her presence to someone else."

Researchers made the observation after poring over more than three decades of recordings made near Sarasota Bay in Florida, per Smithsonian. "This is unprecedented, absolutely fantastic data," says Mauricio Cantor, an Oregon State University marine biologist not involved in the study. Danish behavioral ecologist Frants Jensen says it makes sense this occurs among bottlenose dolphins, as they are "a long lived, highly acoustic species." (More dolphins stories.)

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