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How Findings on Bottlenose Dolphins Taught Me to be a Better Father

Updated: Mar 7

I’m a new father.

Spending time with my daughter is one of the greatest gifts life has to offer, but sometimes it feels silly.

I knew of “baby talk”, or “motherese”, when I had my daughter, but thought it was something others did because babies are just so. darn. cute. My wife excels at it; she and my daughter can talk about everything and nothing for half-an-hour at frequencies foreign to me. Every time I try, however, I feel like a boulder is stuck in my throat -- all that I want to say is kept plugged away in my esophagus by my over-active self-consciousness.

So, we’d sit and look at each other. Unblinking. Sometimes, we’d exchange a smile or two until she yawned or grew hungry. I mastered picking up cues when those times came, but when I passed her off to mom, I ached from all the words left unsaid. I needed to figure out a way to share all that I had to say.

Then, one day, Leala Sayigh and colleagues published a scientific study documenting “motherese” in bottlenose dolphins.

“Motherese”, also known as Child Directed Communication (CDC), is common to people the world over across all languages and cultures. In fact, motherese is necessary: the human language is complicated. It carries layered subtleties and idiosyncrasies that without some kind of initiation can be almost impossible to break into.

We also need to connect with one another. This is especially true in caregivers. Several other-than-human species, from songbirds to monkeys, have been documented using CDC to build connections with the young or show them social norms that are difficult to interpret.

But dolphins are special compared to those other-than-human species: each dolphin has its own unique whistle adapted to different contexts. This made them the ideal study group for Sayigh and colleagues.

From 1984 to 2018 the research team studied communication in a small community of dolphins in Sarasota, Florida. To do this, they used devices comparable to underwater microphones called hydrophones strapped to each dolphins’ melon (yes, melon) to measure the frequency, length, and looping of dolphin whistles.

And to ensure confidence that they were indeed tracking whistles between dolphin mom and calf, they used measurements from 19 dolphin mothers with and without their calves.

The team found that the dolphin moms, young and old, spoke at a broader range of frequencies -- higher and lower -- with their calves, no matter how old. (No matter how hard we try, we just can’t let them go.)

There was, however, one caveat to their study: the mothers might have spoken at those exaggerated frequencies because they were in a stressful catch-and-hold situation. I, however, would not call it a caveat. The odd times I did find myself speaking in motherese were during those moments when I strongly felt my daughter needed to be soothed.

In less stressful times, though, I reverted to a mute. Speaking “motherese” isn’t something a dad would do. Or is it? Child Directed Communication isn’t stale only to be scientific, but generalized to capture the breadth of caretakers that go beyond women. And in songbirds it is the males that have been observed to lead demonstrations of common songs in motherese.

So, now, I don’t just stare at my daughter, nor does she only stare back at me. Instead, I embraced the madness that is parenting and proudly speak motherese.

I have the bottlenose dolphins and more other-than-human communities to thank for this lesson and will preach the significance of protecting them to my daughter at exaggerated frequencies -- that is, before she gets hungry.



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