Bottlenose Dolphin Moms Speak to Their Calves in Baby Talk

Study shows that dolphin mothers change their whistle pitch when close to their offspring.

Jul 24, 2023


Bottlenose Dolphin Moms Speak to Their Calves in Baby Talk | Study shows that dolphin mothers change their whistle pitch when close to their offspring.

Dolphins play, are very social, and have strong maternal instincts, just like humans. Amazingly, Dolphins also speak to their calves using a form of baby talk. Maybe that’s why these marine mammals are so popular.

A study published in the June 2023 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that bottlenose dolphin mothers speak to their young offspring in higher pitched whistles. This “parentese” communication is similar to the higher pitched speech that people use when speaking to babies.

Dolphin communication
Dolphins use whistle vocalizations to communicate with other dolphins and researchers have been trying to decipher this complex language for a long time, reported New Atlas. Every dolphin has their own signature whistle or voice.

It was through recordings of dolphins' communication that researchers found that the whistles were different when  mothers were directing them at their calves. The frequencies were higher and had greater range.

The researchers analyzed recordings of 19 mature female dolphins from a Florida pod that has been studied for over 50 years for a variety of research projects. But obtaining these recordings was not easy, reported The Guardian. Scientists placed special microphones on the wild dolphins  every time they were examined for health reasons.

Every one of the 19 dolphin moms changed the pitch of their whistles when their calves – that stay by their moms for three years – were nearby. At this point researchers don’t know what the higher pitch is used for, it could be a teaching method or just a way to let the offspring know that mom is there.

It’s really important for a calf to know ‘Oh, Mum is talking to me now’ – versus just announcing her presence to someone else,” Janet Mann, a marine biologist at Georgetown University, who was not involved in the study, told The Guardian.

Child directed speech
Human babies learn to speak by imitating their moms so it is logical to assume that offspring in other species do the same. Scientists believe that infants pay more attention to speech with a greater pitch range.

“It would make sense if there are similar adaptations in bottlenose dolphins – a long lived, highly acoustic species,” said Frants Jensen, a behavioral ecologist at Denmark’s Aarhus University and a co-author of the study.

Still more studies are needed to see if this child-directed speech (CDC) crosses more mammalian species, according to New Atlas. Finding CDC in both humans and dolphins could inspire scientists to delve into studying convergent evolution (how different species in varying geographic locations adapt similar traits).

It turns out that humans are not so unique in terms of language and parenting. Hopefully  this knowledge will encourage the conservation of species around the globe.

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Bonnie has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.