Bottlenose dolphins teach sponging and scheming
We like to celebrate the playful, social side of dolphins. Humans have been able to emotionally bond with them to a degree, partially thanks to their performances at water parks, or planned encounters in controlled environments. This shallow camaraderie really sells the dolphins short though, which is odd because these sophisticated animals actually share more traits with humans than many realize. Like us, dolphins show interests in experimentation, innovation, and occasionally brawling with each other to impress their peers.
In Shark Bay, on the western coast of Australia, groups of bottlenose dolphins have been studied for their social behavior but also their innovations as hunters. Multiple generations of dolphins have been observed “sponging,” wherein the dolphin picks a sponge off the ocean floor, then uses it to protect its nose-like rostrum as it pokes along the rocks and sand in murky channels of water. They flush out calorie-rich sand perch, which would otherwise be invisible to the dolphins’ echolocation, as the sand and rocks obscures the telltale pings of a fish’s swim bladder. The technique seems to be a local trick, not instinct, however, and is only used by dolphins who apprenticed under sponging mothers.
Some dolphins will play with sponges, but if they did not grow up with a sponging mother, they never master this process. Of those that do, almost all of them are female. Males have been known to pick up their mom’s handy trick, but they don’t usually stick with it when they reach adulthood. This may be thanks to having less pressure to obtain calories with no babies to feed in their life, plus constant social demands that don’t leave time for something like sponging.
From junior high to House of Cards
The social demands are tied to competition and cooperation. Male dolphins work in small teams to isolate females, narrowing the female’s options for mating partners. These teams do everything together, and are in nearly constant contact in case an ally needs support, often to fend off other competing males. These teams have even been seen acting as larger conglomerations of teams in something like a dolphin version of Europe in World War I. While this sounds slightly sad and futile, it requires an amazing amount of memory and analysis to manage such pacts and personal relationships.
So if we ever find a way to communicate directly with dolphins, we should skip asking about the weather and their favorite fish. They may just be happier sharing a discussion on technology, passing along family trades with your offspring and politics.
Source: The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner