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Clicks and cliques: A lonely dolphin tries to communicate with her porpoise pals

She could make a killing as the new spokesdolphin for Duolingo.

Kylie The Dolphin With A Porpoise

The 1996 family adventure film Flipper is an aquatic rollercoaster ride of epic proportions. The movie opens with Sandy, played by Elijah Wood, visiting his uncle for the summer. The stakes start small, Sandy’s biggest problems are missing a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert and figuring out how to live on a diet of pure SpaghettiOs. Then things get pretty serious, pretty quickly. Sandy befriends a dolphin separated from his pod and, together, they unravel a toxic waste dumping operation and fight a hammerhead shark. Sandy’s in line for the coolest “What I Did Over My Summer Vacation” essay in the history of junior high.

A dolphin befriending a teenage boy and embarking on a series of adventures might seem like an unrealistic setup for a narrative, but it isn’t that farfetched. Dolphins have been documented interacting with humans and other non-dolphin species on countless occasions.

Now, according to a recent paper published in the journal Bioacoustics, a dolphin might have jumped the communication barrier and learned to speak, however tentatively, with another species. Mel Cosentino from the Bioacoustics Group at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow was part of the team who studied a dolphin named Kylie and her unusual relationship with porpoises in the Firth of Clyde.

“Kylie showed up to the area about 20 years ago. Some reports say she might have had a cub at the time and then she stayed there. Everybody knows Kylie and that she hangs out with porpoises,” Cosentino told SYFY WIRE.

While dolphins are usually social animals, living in large pods for the duration of their lives, individuals choosing to go off on their own isn’t unheard of. It’s unclear why some animals choose to go it alone, but it might be a feature of intelligence, similar to how some humans prefer solitude.

“This is typical of solitary animals, especially bottlenose dolphins who just leave on their own. There was one in Ireland who lived in the harbor alone. There were a lot of dolphins outside the harbor, but he never mixed with them. He lived alone in the harbor for 40 years,” Cosentino said.

Kylie The Dolphin With A Porpoise

What’s interesting about Kylie is that she does have a rich social life, it’s just with animals of another species. Acoustic surveys of the area where she lives seem to suggest she’s learned to speak porpoise, or at least she’s learned to mimic their calls.

Scientists in the area regularly make underwater acoustic surveys to capture the sounds of the animals living there. On three occasions, they recorded vocalizations from Kylie which resemble the sorts of sounds porpoises use to communicate.

“Dolphins use whistles, which are the most studied dolphin sounds. They also produce burst pulses, which are clicks, which are used for echolocation. Porpoises only produce clicks for echolocation and communication, but the frequencies are different,” Cosentino said.

Using an app she developed, Cosentino was able to separate Kylie’s vocalizations from the porpoises by looking at the frequencies. Recorded observations showed that Kylie has stopped using the whistles which are typical of her species and instead only communicates using the porpoise clicks. The surveys also show the porpoises clicking in response. What remains unclear, is whether or not either party understands what the other is saying.

“It might be just like me barking at my dog and the dog barking back. We’re not saying anything, just making sounds,” Cosentino said.

Figuring out if Kylie is successfully communicating with her porpoise friends would require a greater understanding of what each individual call means, and that’s something we just don’t have at the moment. Regardless, there is good evidence that Kylie has developed a meaningful relationship with the porpoises in the area. She remains around a set of buoys while the porpoises venture off to parts unknown. That means that any time they are together, it is because the porpoises have sought her out.

“There are observations of porpoises bringing their cubs to her. That shows they do have some sort of relationship that’s been going on for years. Also, porpoises live about 12 years, if this has been going on for 15 to 20 years, then it’s more than one generation,” Cosentino said.

Dolphins like Kylie can live for decades, making her a sort of otherworldly, generation-spanning presence in the local porpoise community. She's basically the aquatic version of a seemingly immortal elf leaving their forest fortress to live with mortals. It must be a lonely life. Here’s hoping whatever the porpoises are saying to her, it’s only nice things.

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