This solitary dolphin learned to “speak porpoise” and made new friends

Dolphins are very social creatures. But what happens when they become isolated? Some solitary dolphins seek comfort around navigational buoys and sometimes approach other species like humans. But this one solitary short-beaked common dolphin called Kylie found a way to deal with isolation. This common dolphin hanging out in Scottish waters seems to “speak porpoise,” producing sounds similar to those of harbor porpoises, and made some friends along the way.

Kylie leaping out of the water. Photo credits: Dr. Mel Cosentino

The “lonely” dolphin

Our story begins on the west coast of Scotland, an area known as the Firth of Clyde. Within it, between Fairlie and the Isle of Cumbrae, lives a short-beaked common dolphin. This solitary dolphin, recognizable by a nick on its dorsal fin, has decided to stick around a navigational buoy he calls home since the early 2000s. The dolphin is by himself and interacts with the locals regularly. The locals fell in love with the friendly dolphin and called it Kylie. It can be challenging to figure out the sex of a wild dolphin correctly… and when experts confirmed the dolphin was a male, the name Kylie had already stuck!

A porpoiseful audience…

So, if he doesn’t have much opportunity to strike up friendships with members of his species, what’s a dolphin to do? Dolphins are naturally very social mammals, with complex social dynamics and forming life-long relationships. The Clyde waters have some of the highest densities of harbor porpoises in Europe. Locals have noticed that some porpoise pals often hang out with Kylie. People reported Kylie swimming with porpoises, bow-riding playfully together, and even circling his buoy home together.

The question is, then, can Kylie overcome species boundaries to interact meaningfully with his porpoise companions? Well, research is underway in hopes of revealing if Kylie has altered his speech to resemble that of porpoises. It seems like he is producing sounds similar to those made by harbor porpoises when in their company!

Changing clicks frequency

Dolphins produce a lot of different sounds, including whistles and clicks. Porpoises only produce clicks.

Dolphin clicks are broadband, meaning that they have energy in a broad range of frequencies, from 0 to over 150 kHz (humans can only hear up to 20 kHz). Porpoises, on the other hand, produce narrow-band clicks, meaning the energy is concentrated in a narrow range of frequencies (between 100 and 150 kHz, with the peak at 130 kHz). The important thing here is that porpoise clicks have no energy at all below 100 kHz, while dolphin clicks do. This gives researchers such as Dr. Mel Cosentino a unique opportunity to look at whether Kylie is doing something “porpoisefully” with his clicks.

Dr. Mel Cosentino and her Kylie Research

mel consentino | Southern Fried Science
Dr. Mel Cosentino taken from her twitter account

Dr. Mel Cosentino, who obtained her PhD from the University of Strathclyde, carried out this research in partnership with the Clyde Porpoise CIC, whose director is David Nairn. To do so, they towed two hydrophones behind their research vessel. Then, they isolated and extracted dolphin and porpoise clicks. Finally, they analyzed the clicks using a custom-built algorithm.

Dr. Cosentino said: “Several cetacean species, such as bottlenose dolphins, belugas, and killer whales, have the ability to change their acoustic repertoire as a result of interactions with other species. This ability has mainly been observed in captive individuals, but few cases have been reported for wild cetaceans.”

In the interests of Kylie’s welfare, David Nairn from the Clyde Porpoise CIC has stated that Kylie “is a solitary dolphin trying to strike up friendships with porpoises which won’t be able to achieve with boats hounding it and advised locals to “steer a straight course, keep a constant speed, and please leave the animal alone.”

Kylie the local star

The fascinating friendships that Kylie has formed have stirred up a lot of interest with locals and tourists. Locals have become incredibly fond of and very protective of Kylie. In Largs, Nardini’s café overlooking Kylie’s typical hang out sells the ocean-blue ice-cream ‘flipperberry ripple’ in honor of Kylie. With each purchase, customers get leaflets encouraging their support in protecting marine mammals in the area from human impacts. These impacts include the Peelports Hunterston PARC Oil Rig decommissioning port development, which would produce a lot of underwater noise. Such noise disturbance would likely affect his ability to form unique relationships with his porpoise friends. After featuring on the BBC’s The One Show, Kylie even became a beloved national icon. Millions of people around the U.K and beyond now watch him.

So while Kylie may be a solitary dolphin, he is far from alone! He has amazed researchers and charmed the public by seeking out these fascinating inter-species relationships with his porpoise pals. However, he’ll no doubt need some help from us in protecting his friendships, by in turn protecting the waters that they all share and enjoy together.

Want to get in contact with Dr. Mel Cosentino or Clyde Porpoise? Here are some ways:

Dr. Mel Cosentino


Thanks for reading!! Here are some links with more information!

I live in Scotland and graduated with a Masters (1st Class) in Zoology from the University of Glasgow. In the final 2 years of my degree, I specialised in marine mammal biology whereby alongside academic study I spent a year as a sea lion researcher and also spent time doing marine mammal surveys off the west coast.

Naomi Mathew is a PhD student at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She works on bioacoustics in marine mammals from the Gulf of Mexico. She is the co-founder of Whale Scientists. You can read more about her here

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