It seems that not a day goes by without new research breaking down the barriers between humans and many of the other species that share our planet. I have reported on the burgeoning research into emotional expression in animals. No surprise to anyone who spends much time interacting with them, but a shock to some of my more conservative colleagues. Within the last ten years I have spoken to countless psychologists clinging to the notion that animals are just bundles of reflexes designed to protect them and allow them to reproduce.
The evidence for complex communication patterns in dolphin has long fascinated me. This was triggered in part by the work of the late John Lilly. One of my mentors in neurology was firmly of the opinion that it was impossible because they did not have the right neurological machinery. It seems that he was wrong. There is an extraordinary new report picked up by the BBC and the National Geographic from a team of scientists based at St Andrews University in Scotland: the same place that Prince William attended for four years. In a three-year-study of wild dolphins, conducted in Sarasota Bay off Florida's west coast and funded by the Royal Society of London, they found that dolphins communicate like humans by calling each other by "name.” Using whistles, these mammals are able to recognize themselves and other members of the same species as individuals with separate identities. They have labels for each other just as we do.
This is important not just because of the implication that they have evolved some of the same abilities that we have, but because it likely means that they have a sense of self and of identity and that they able to differentiate each other as individuals.
I was talking about these findings with She Who Must Be Obeyed, and she pointed out that our horses appear to be able to do the same thing: if you watch them closely they have different calls for attracting each other’s attention, and these calls are different when they are at home or when they are in competition. Two of the horses are constantly going to competitions together, and after they have done well, they have a new repertoire of sounds with which they communicate with each other, and yet others with which they communicate with other horses. For people not used to being around these animals, they always assume that we are simply anthropomorphizing. But I don’t think so: it really seems that they call to each other in a precise and predictable way after they have done their jobs well. We have often said that they are bragging: perhaps we’re not so far from the truth.