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Production and perception of acoustic signals in captive bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) : contextual use of social signals and recognition of artificial labels

Abstract : Studies on animal bioacoustics, traditionally relying on non-human primate and songbird models, converge towards the idea that social life appears as the main driving force behind the evolution of complex communication. Comparisons with cetaceans is also particularly interesting from an evolutionary point of view. They are indeed mammals forming complex social bonds, with abilities in acoustic plasticity, but that had to adapt to marine life, making habitat another determining selection force. Their natural habitat constrains sound production, usage and perception but, in the same way, constrains ethological observations making studies of captive cetaceans an important source of knowledge on these animals. Beyond the analysis of acoustic structures, the study of the social contexts in which the different vocalizations are used is essential to the understanding of vocal communication. Compared to primates and birds, the social function of dolphins’ acoustic signals remains largely misunderstood. Moreover, the way cetaceans’ vocal apparatus and auditory system adapted morphoanatomically to an underwater life is unique in the animal kingdom. But their ability to perceive sounds produced in the air remains controversial due to the lack of experimental demonstrations. The objectives of this thesis were, on the one hand, to explore the spontaneous contextual usage of acoustic signals in a captive group of bottlenose dolphins and, on the other hand, to test experimentally underwater and aerial abilities in auditory perception. Our first observational study describes the daily life of our dolphins in captivity, and shows that vocal signalling reflects, at a large scale, the temporal distribution of social and non-social activities in a facility under human control. Our second observational study focuses on the immediate context of emission of the three main acoustic categories previously identified in the dolphins’ vocal repertoire, i.e. whistles, burst-pulses and click trains. We found preferential associations between each vocal category and specific types of social interactions and identified context-dependent patterns of sound combinations. Our third study experimentally tested, under standardized conditions, the response of dolphins to human-made individual sound labels broadcast under and above water. We found that dolphins were able to recognize and to react only to their own label, even when broadcast in the air. Apart from confirming aerial hearing, these findings go in line with studies supporting that dolphins possess a concept of identity. Overall, the results obtained during this thesis suggest that some social signals in the dolphin repertoire can be used to communicate specific information about the behavioural contexts of the individuals involved and that individuals are able to generalize their concept of identity for human-generated signals.
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Alice de Moura Lima. Production and perception of acoustic signals in captive bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) : contextual use of social signals and recognition of artificial labels. Animal biology. Université Rennes 1, 2017. English. ⟨NNT : 2017REN1B048⟩. ⟨tel-02412889⟩

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