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Dolphin mothers use 'baby talk' with offspring, study finds

A study conducted over the course of decades found that signature noises bottlenose dolphins make are altered by mothers when speaking to calves.
A baby dolphin and its mother.
Posted at 10:10 PM, Jun 26, 2023

New research using data derived from decades of analysis on how bottlenose dolphins communicate has found that mothers use a sort of "baby talk" that is distinct when communicating with offspring, compared to how they communicate with other adult dolphins. 

Zoologist Laela Sayigh of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has studied bottlenose dolphins in Florida in the world’s longest-running study of wild dolphins, and she found that mothers communicate with calves in a more "singsong and musical" way. 

The research uses data from observations of captured and released dolphins since 1986.

Sayigh says just as humans change the way we say words, and not the words themselves, when speaking to children, dolphins are sort of doing the same thing. 

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The research found that these dolphins join only a small number of other animals, like zebra finches, squirrel monkeys and rhesus macaques, in changing their calls when communicating with the young. 

The zoologists call the communication style "motherese" or "infant-directed speech."

The researchers in the study analyzed 19 moments that were recorded over the course of 34 years and found that mothers increased and widened their pitch of the signature whistles when communicating with their offspring, not too unlike how humans communicate with their children. 

Sayigh told the Atlantic, “We were just blown away by how consistent the effect was.”