An Ocean Lullaby: Dolphin Mothers Use Baby-Talk With Calves

Jun 30, 2023

7 Interesting Facts About Bottlenose Dolphins

You know that high-pitched, songlike tone moms use to say “Peekaboo?” Researchers call it “motherese”. Motherese is found in almost all human cultures. However, with animals, it hasn't really been seen — until now. A study published Monday suggests that dolphins also use motherese.  

The team of scientists looked at bottlenose dolphins for the study. That's because, like humans, dolphins form long-term bonds with their babies. They also use vocalization to communicate. For over 30 years, the team recorded the whistles and clicks of dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida.  

“They use these whistles to keep track of each other. They’re periodically saying, ‘I’m here, I’m here’,” Laela Sayigh told The Associated Press (AP). She is a marine biologist and a study co-author.

Sayigh tracked 19 dolphin mothers for the study. In every case, when “speaking” to their calves, the mothers used pitches in a higher and broader range. This was similar to human moms who coo to their babies. 

“This is unprecedented, absolutely fantastic data,” Mauricio Cantor told the AP. He is an Oregon State University marine biologist. “This study is the result of so much research effort.”

We still don't know why dolphin moms use these higher pitches. Sayigh’s team has several theories, though. The mommas might be helping their calves learn to communicate. They also might just be trying to get their kids’ attention — kind of like the “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!” speech of the ocean.  

Dolphin dads were not part of the study. Female dolphins stay with their calves up to three years after birth, but male dolphins are not really involved.

Reflect: What animals do you know of that sometimes seem to act human?

Based on information in the infographic, dolphins communicate with each other by _______. (Common Core RI.5.7; RI.6.7)
a. using their vocal cords
b. creating vibrations in the water
c. using their blowholes
d. making clicking noises with their mouths
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