Scientists in the Field
Spiral Notebook
Dolphins Are Even Smarter Than You Think!
by Pamela Turner
August 28, 2013
Dolphins Are Even Smarter Than You Think!
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My upcoming book The Dolphins of Shark Bay looks at the lives of a community of wild bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia. As researcher Janet Mann notes, “Like us, dolphins have big social networks.” Over the course of a typical day a wild dolphin may interact with dozens of other dolphins and eavesdrop on the whistles and clicks of many more. And now new research from the University of Chicago suggests that dolphins can remember their friends even after decades of separation.

Long-term memory can be difficult to study in other species. But scientist Jason Bruck hit upon the idea of using recordings of signature whistles. Every bottlenose dolphin has a unique whistle that it uses when separated from family or friends, a vocalization that seems to mean “Hey, it’s me. I’m over here!”

Bruck studied 43 captive bottlenose dolphins belonging to a zoo and aquarium program that rotated the animals between institutions for breeding. First he gathered recordings of signature whistles from unfamiliar dolphins and broadcast them underwater . Before long, the listening dolphin got bored. Then Bruck slipped in a signature whistle from a dolphin that had once shared a tank with the listening dolphin. The reaction was immediate. Dolphins who heard a former tank-mate’s signature whistle zoomed around in obvious excitement.

The most astonishing finding? A dolphin named Allie immediately recognized the signature whistle of Bailey, a former tank-mate…even though Allie and Bailey had been separated for over twenty years!

Check out this video, entitled Dolphin Memories Last for Decades!

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About Pamela Turner

Pamela S. Turner lives in Oakland, California with her children and her husband. She has a B.A. in social science from UCAL-Irvine and a Master’s of public health from UCAL-Berkeley. She has written numerous books for young readers, including Hachiko and the Scientists in the Field titles Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes, The Frog Scientist, Project Seahorse, The Dolphins of Shark Bay and her forthcoming work, Crow Smarts. Visit her website at


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