RESEARCH: Mother dolphins use ‘baby talk’ with their young

Mother dolphins use ‘baby talk’ with their young, say researchers studying thirty years of dolphin data. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2023.

Marine biologists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Hampshire College in Massachusetts examined data on the Bottlenose Dolphin and found that they have complex communication patterns that are similar to humans. The researchers analysed recordings of 19 female dolphins over 34 years. They also observed a pod of wild Bottlenose Dolphins in Florida’s Sarasota Bay.

The Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) is a marine mammal in the Delphinidae family of oceanic dolphins. The mother dolphin is pregnant for about 12 months before giving birth to a live baby in shallow water. A newborn dolphin is about 140 centimetres (4.6 feet) long and suckles milk from its mother for 18 months and even up to 8 years after birth.  

The National Geographic reported that the researchers found the pattern of dolphin sounds become shorter and more ‘singsong’ and musical when mother dolphins communicate with their young. 

One of the researchers, Laela Sayigh, said that only a handful of animal species have shown to change their communication patterns when addressing their young. These include Zebra Finches, Rhesus Macaques, and Squirrel Monkeys. 

The researchers think that the Bottlenese Dolphin communicates in ‘baby talk’ to its young to teach it how to communicate – i.e., to teach it how to contstruct sentences with the appropriate structure. Just like humans, parents start with short sentences and increase the pitch of their speech. To hold the attention of children, human parents use a musical voice often with exaggerated rhyming words, such as ‘Look at that doggy. Wook at dat widdle puppy-wuppy!’ The Bottlenese Dolphin has a similar speech pattern with its young, using ‘songs’ and whistles.

The researchers are continuing their study because they have many more unanswered questions about the communication patterns between mother and baby dolphins.  

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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