Wild Dolphin 'Identifies as a Porpoise,' Learns to Speak to Porpoise Pals

A solitary female dolphin off the coast of Scotland "identifies as a porpoise" and tries to speak to a group of harbor porpoises that also frequent the Firth of Clyde, according to scientists.

Scientists say this is the first time a wild dolphin has been observed "talking" to porpoises, with recordings showing how her vocalizations are far more akin to those of porpoises than dolphins. The findings were published in the journal Bioacoustics.

The dolphin, named Kylie, has never been seen with any other common dolphin. While the species is found around Scotland, they generally do not enter the Firth of Clyde, where Kylie spends most of her time.

kylie dolphin porpoise
Images taken of Kylie interacting with porpoises over several years. Kylie is believed to have learned to speak like a porpoise. Top image: D. Nairn. Bottom left: P. Nichols. Bottom right: G. Patterson. Nairn/Nicols/Patterson/Cosentino et al/Bioacoustics

Dolphins are extremely intelligent, social animals. They tend to live in pods and form strong bonds with one another. They are believed to communicate via whistles and clicks, with recordings indicating they may even have conversations. Why some dolphins end up alone is unclear. Some are thought to get lost at a young age, while others appear to just prefer a solitary life.

Rather than seeking out other dolphins, Kylie spends most her time around navigational buoys, interacting with harbor porpoises. Researchers led by Mel Cosentino, from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, spent two years recording Kylie's calls when she was alone with porpoises.

Their findings showed she used clicks exclusively to communicate—omitting whistles altogether. This is much more in line with the way porpoises converse. Kylie has spent 14 years in the area with the porpoises, and researchers believe that over this time—and in the absence of dolphins—she has learned to speak like her fellow cetacean friends.

David Nairn, founder and director of Clyde Porpoise, which aims to study and protect local marine mammals, was one of the authors of the study. He told National Geographic Kylie "definitely identifies as a porpoise." Nairn said he has seen female porpoises bringing their calves to Kylie, with the dolphin interacting with them in the same way an adult would carry a baby. He also said there have been attempts at mating with Kylie and that she "courts" the male porpoises.

Cosentino told National Geographic it is unclear what level of communication there is between Kylie and the porpoises. She said there is a rhythm back and forth that could be likened to a conversation. "It might be me barking to my dog and him barking back," she told the magazine.

Cosentino also said Kylie struggles to get as high-pitched in her clicks as the porpoises. "If they were singers, Kylie would be Pavarotti and the porpoises would be Mariah Carey."

Kylie has not been seen in the Firth of Clyde since storms hit the area in February last year. Nairn said it is not unusual for Kylie to go missing for months at a time, but said he hopes she returns to the area this spring.

Consentino told Newsweek they will need to get more recordings to understand what Kylie and the porpoises are saying. "There's some communication going on, but what are we really saying to each other? Certainly there's more work to be done and we hope new recordings would come in the future."

She said she does not believe Kylie thinks she is a porpoise: "Dolphins are very social and she has found herself without conspecifics—but she found animals from another species who seem to be interested in hanging out with her," she said. "I think she learned to produce sound similar to porpoise sounds as a result of these interactions that have been happening for over a decade."

This article has been updated to include quotes from Mel Consentino.

happy dolphin
Stock photo of a dolphin. Kylie the solitary dolphin has not been seen in the Firth of Clyde for over a year. Getty Images