About the Project
Bottlenose dolphins have a complex communication system and display advanced cognitive skills. Unlike nonhuman primates, they are able to copy new sounds and can use them to refer to objects. In the wild, bottlenose dolphins use individually distinctive signature whistles that they develop through learning early in life. These are then copied by conspecifics when addressing the whistle owner. Thus, signature whistle may be the first example of a learned signal being used referentially in an animal communication system. This project will explore the development of signature whistles in more detail. The student will use our signature whistle archive from Sarasota Bay, Florida, and collect new whistle data at our field site in Sarasota to investigate how signature whistles are influenced by heritage, sex, age and social associations. Focal follows will help to investigate how dolphins use signature whistles and in what contexts they copy the signature whistles of conspecifics. Playback experiments can be used to study the referential nature of signature whistles by playing original whistles as well as whistle copies to selected individuals. The project will be a collaboration with Dr Laela Sayigh from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Dr Randy Wells from the Chicago Zoological Society.