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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Importance of Contextual Saliency on Vocal Imitation by Bottlenose Dolphins

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

A previous experimental study (Reiss & McCowan, 1993) on dolphin vocal learning documented the process and pattern of vocal imitation in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). This previous study demonstrated that dolphins spontaneously imitate novel signals when paired with salient environmental events. The acquisition process of the dolphins’ imitations paralleled both the avian and human vocal development literature. Yet this past study did not directly test whether specific contingencies were necessary for vocal imitation by dolphins. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of contextual saliency on vocal imitation and acquisition in bottlenose dolphins. Over a six-month study period, we experimentally exposed two infant male bottlenose dolphins and their mothers to six novel computer-generated whistles that were either unpaired or paired with specific contextual events (preferred toy objects). The results demonstrate that acoustic exposure alone was sufficient for spontaneous vocal imitation to occur but that context affects the timing, extent and quality of vocal imitation by bottlenose dolphins.

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