Dolphins Decide Their Own Names

This article in the National Geographic Online reports how marine biologists have been able to prove that dolphins devise unique whistles which essentially function as names. A dolphin will use the same whistle for the duration of its life to announce its presence and introduce itself to new, unfamiliar dolphins. The study found that dolphins who hear the whistle of a family member or pod mate express recognition, even if they had not seen the dolphin or heard its whistle for years. I’ve read elsewhere one dolphin will perform another’s whistle as a means of summoning and engaging with it. And when two dolphin pods encounter each other in the open sea, a representative will break off from the group and introduce the entire pod by just performing his or her own whistle.

I find the transitive relationship between subject and object in this case of naming fascinating. That individuals are given agency to determine their own names and that presentation of a single individual’s name is sufficient to represent the entire group is probably indicative egalitarianism in dolphin social systems. Dolphins do elect leaders, and they also fight each other for rank and mating rights. But obedience does not seem to be so rigidly enforced in dolphin pods as it is among primates or other terrestrial predators. Dolphins in the wild are free to leave their pods and rejoin them at will. Because there is such flux in their social groupings and relationships, dolphins are very difficult to study outside of captivity and not much is known about their rules and social organization. However, one thing that is immediately obvious after watching the footage above of a coordinated strike against a school of herring is that dolphin social groups are rigorously organized. There is a dialectic at work in dolphin society, but it is difficult to see how it is constructed. How do they know when to dart and when to plunge? Who determines which dolphins drive the school and which intercept their escape? How do they divide the spoils? Do they have politics? If so, how are they expressed?

2 thoughts on Dolphins Decide Their Own Names

    • Flipper is an entertainment franchise, not a name. The dolphin you see on the television is a representation, pieced together out of video images. It is not a real dolphin.

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