You rarely meet someone who says, “I’m great with names. I remember everyone’s name!” Many of us, I suspect, simply ask names out of reflex, barely listening to the answer and forgetting it a few seconds later. But knowing names is an important trait–so important that new research finds that, while it’s been considered nearly exclusive to humans, naming might be a downright evolutionary part of intelligence, but mostly only when it comes to the closest beings in our lives.
Each bottlenose dolphin has its own distinct whistle, learned when they’re a baby from their parent, and announced from then on whenever they enter a group. You could call it their name. What we didn’t know until recently was whether dolphins ever use one another’s names. So researchers at Sarasota split individuals and groups of dolphins into isolated nets. They could hear one another, but not see one another. And in many cases, they began saying one another’s names. From Science:
The dolphins did this quickly, too, repeating the other’s whistle within 1 second of hearing it. Those dolphins that copied whistles also only imitated the call of their closest social partner. “It means they were calling a specific individual,” King says. “They produce the copies when they are separated, which we think shows that they want to reunite with a particular individual.” It’s what we do if we get separated from our friends at a fair or the mall, she adds. “You don’t call out your name; you call the name of your friend. That’s how you get back together.”
Indeed, dolphins don’t copy just anybody’s signature whistle; they are very selective in how they use this talent, using it solely to maintain bonds between mother and calf and between allied males, King says. The scientists recorded one pair of males twice, once at the beginning of the project and then 12 years later. Even after all that time, each dolphin “copied the fine details of the other’s whistle,” King says, an indication of the pair’s especially tight bond.
If I read that correctly, dolphins are great with names, but only for those they care most about. That sure does sound a lot like humans. Which just goes to show, while it may be good social etiquette to remember names, when your chips are down, it’s only the names of the people you love and care about that really matter. So just try not to forget those, and keep the rest of us in an address book.
[Image: Dolphin via Shutterstock]