Decades-long social memory in bottlenose dolphins

Jason N. Bruck


Long-term social memory is important, because it is an ecologically relevant test of cognitive capacity, it helps us understand which social relationships are remembered and it relates two seemingly disparate disciplines: cognition and sociality. For dolphins, long-term memory for conspecifics could help assess social threats as well as potential social or hunting alliances in a very fluid and complex fission–fusion social system, yet we have no idea how long dolphins can remember each other. Through a playback study conducted within a multi-institution dolphin breeding consortium (where animals are moved between different facilities), recognition of unfamiliar versus familiar signature whistles of former tank mates was assessed. This research shows that dolphins have the potential for lifelong memory for each other regardless of relatedness, sex or duration of association. This is, to my knowledge, the first study to show that social recognition can last for at least 20 years in a non-human species and the first large-scale study to address long-term memory in a cetacean. These results, paired with evidence from elephants and humans, provide suggestive evidence that sociality and cognition could be related, as a good memory is necessary in a fluid social system.

  • Received July 4, 2013.
  • Accepted July 15, 2013.
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