Do dolphin moms use baby talk, also known as a parentese voice? It’s hard to know for sure, but researchers think this might be the case.
What is a parentese voice?
Just like humans resort to baby talk when interacting with infants, bottlenose dolphins employ similar tactics. Studies indicate that bottlenose dolphin mothers alter their whistle pitches in the presence of their calves. This behavioral adjustment, often termed “parentese,” is thought to enhance calf attention, promoting bonding and facilitating vocal learning.
Every common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) establishes a unique whistle within the initial months of its existence. These distinctive whistles function as names, enabling dolphins to identify and keep track of each other in the vast waters, explains Laela Sayigh (in the article cited below), a marine biologist at the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
However, interestingly, dolphin mothers seem to modify their whistles when interacting with their young ones. These calves typically stay with their mothers for three to six years, allowing ample opportunity for communication.
Sayigh initially noticed this modulation in motherly dolphin tunes during a 2009 study conducted by one of her students. The research didn’t delve deeper into this observation at the time. Recently, Sayigh and her colleagues revisited this phenomenon, analyzing signature whistles from 19 female dolphins, both in the presence and absence of their calves.
This study focused on a wild dolphin population residing near Sarasota Bay, Florida, a community that has been under scientific observation for over five decades. The scientists scrutinized 40 instances of each dolphin’s signature whistle, half of which were vocalized when their calf was nearby.
Analyzing the Dolphin Parentese Voice
The research unveiled that the mother dolphins employed a broader pitch range when their young ones were around. On average, the highest pitch was slightly higher, and the lowest pitch somewhat lower than when the calves were absent. These changes strikingly mirror the characteristics of human baby talk, claims Sayigh.
A comparison between dolphin whistles in the presence and absence of calves illustrates the pronounced change in pitch. Much like human caregivers, who use real words but distinct inflections while interacting with babies, dolphins too exhibited higher pitches and a broader pitch range.
Studying Dolphin Communication
Despite these intriguing findings, some researchers like Quincy Gibson, director of dolphin research at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, caution that the study’s observations were made during catch-and-release situations. For a comprehensive understanding of dolphin communication, it’s crucial to observe and listen to freely swimming dolphin mothers, she suggests.
Mauricio Cantor, who studies animal behavior at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, points out the speculative nature of attributing similar roles of ‘parentese’ in humans and dolphins. Absolute certainty in this matter is unachievable until we can understand dolphins’ actual intentions behind these actions, he argues.
Nevertheless, Sayigh contends that it’s fascinating to witness potential similarities in how different species communicate with their infants. This study paves the way for further exploration into the intricate world of dolphin communication.