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60-Second Science

The Dolphin's Whistle Rings a Bell

Dolphins can recall the signature whistles of former companions, even after decades of separation. Sophie Bushwick reports

Have you ever run into a former acquaintance—and discovered that you can't remember his name? This awkward situation is apparently alien to dolphins, who can recall old companions up to two decades later.

As a recent 60-Second Science podcast explained, dolphins have signature whistles that may serve as individual names. But how long do they remember their friends' titles? To find out, researchers looked at 43 captive dolphins that have moved among the same six facilities, living together in different combinations at various times.

When the scientists played unfamiliar signature whistles for each dolphin, the test subjects quickly grew bored. But when the dolphins heard recordings of the signature whistles of former companions, they moved towards the speakers and even whistled back at them. The study is in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. [Jason N. Bruck, Decades-long social memory in bottlenose dolphins]

Not even a separation of 20 years could dim the memory of one particular dolphin, which suggests these mammals may have lifelong social memories. Perhaps it’s time to change the old axiom about elephants to “a dolphin never forgets.”

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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