Wild dolphins copy sounds to develop 'human' language

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The complex calls of wild dolphins display the early signs of true language development, according to a marine biologist who has recorded the underwater whistles of a pod swimming in Scotland's Moray Firth.

The complex calls of wild dolphins display the early signs of true language development, according to a marine biologist who has recorded the underwater whistles of a pod swimming in Scotland's Moray Firth.

Members of the pod imitate one another's call within seconds of hearing it for the first time. The scientist believes this "vocal matching" is a way of identifying individuals within the group, a key component in the early evolution of human language.

Vincent Janik, from the University of St Andrews, says vocal matching is rare among animals and this is the first time it has been shown to occur naturally in wild dolphins.

Dr Janik, whose study is published in the journal Science, said: "Although vocal matching is common in birds, bottleneck dolphins are the only non-human mammals in which matching interactions with learned signal types have been found."

"The occurrence of such matching or labelling has been hypothesised to have been an important step in the evolution of human language," he said.

The experiment involved placing hydrophones - underwater sound recorders - several hundred metres apart so the position of a high-pitch whistle of a dolphin could be located to within a few metres.

By timing the arrival of the sounds, Dr Janik could calculate where individual dolphins were in the water channel and whether two identical sounds came from one or more of the pod members.

It is well established that dolphins possess a complex underwater communication system but the revelation that they engage in vocal matching suggests they may be more verbal than previously thought.

Evolutionary biologists believe the development of true language must have started with the ability to identify each member of a group and being able to imitate sounds rapidly and accurately as well as remembering them.

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