Bottlenose Dolphins Retain Individual Vocal Labels in Multi-level Alliances

Stephanie L. King, Whitney R. Friedman, Simon J. Allen, Livia Gerber, Frants H. Jensen, Samuel Wittwer, Richard C. Connor, Michael Krützen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Cooperation between allied individuals and groups is ubiquitous in human societies, and vocal communication is known to play a key role in facilitating such complex human behaviors [1, 2]. In fact, complex communication may be a feature of the kind of social cognition required for the formation of social alliances, facilitating both partner choice and the execution of coordinated behaviors [3]. As such, a compelling avenue for investigation is what role flexible communication systems play in the formation and maintenance of cooperative partnerships in other alliance-forming animals. Male bottlenose dolphins in some populations form complex multi-level alliances, where individuals cooperate in the pursuit and defense of an important resource: access to females [4]. These strong relationships can last for decades and are critical to each male's reproductive success [4]. Convergent vocal accommodation is used to signal social proximity to a partner or social group in many taxa [5, 6], and it has long been thought that allied male dolphins also converge onto a shared signal to broadcast alliance identity [5–8]. Here, we combine a decade of data on social interactions with dyadic relatedness estimates to show that male dolphins that form multi-level alliances in an open social network retain individual vocal labels that are distinct from those of their allies. Our results differ from earlier reports of signature whistle convergence among males that form stable alliance pairs. Instead, they suggest that individual vocal labels play a central role in the maintenance of differentiated relationships within complex nested alliances. Vocal convergence is frequently used to signal social proximity between individuals. King et al. show that multi-level dolphin alliances do not converge onto shared calls but retain individual vocal labels. This suggests that vocal labels play a central role in the recognition of cooperative partners and competitors in complex biological markets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1993-1999.e3
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 18 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • alliances
  • bottlenose dolphin
  • cooperation
  • male social relationships
  • signature whistles
  • vocal labels
  • vocal learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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