An Uplifting Dolphin Story. Literally.

I’ve always found friendly interactions between animals of different species to be oddly reassuring. After all, the world can’t be all that bad a place if two animals, separated by differing genetic backgrounds and behavioral imperatives, can find a way to reach across the biological divide and share something, something joyful and positive.

Because of this, I’m an absolute sucker for all of those YouTube videos of cats curling up with mice, horses who befriend sheep, elephants and dogs who are inseparable, and the like. You know the ones I mean.

Many times, though, these are artificial pairings that spring up after we humans have altered the environment, habituating or even confining the animals with one another. While these human-influenced relationships can be incredibly heartwarming, it somehow seems even more magical when animals forge connections across species boundaries in the wild, in their native habitats and without any human intervention.

With that background, I’d like to introduce a paper published last year in the journal Aquatic Mammals1, which reports on two separate playful and – as you’ll see – uplifting encounters between bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).

The first took place on a January afternoon off the northwest coast of Kauai, when a group of eight bottlenose dolphins met up with a pair of humpback whales. Two of the dolphins – apparently adults – approached one of the whales, first appearing to surf the pressure wave created by the whale’s head as it swam, and later taking turns lying perpendicularly across the whale’s rostrum when it surfaced to breathe. Then, while one of the dolphins lay balanced over the end of its rostrum, the whale stopped and slowly lifted the dolphin high into the air. The dolphin maintained an arched position and made no effort to escape, allowing the whale to continue lifting until it was nearly vertical in the water, at which point the dolphin slid down the whale’s rostrum, dove into the water, and porpoised back to its fellow dolphins.

Here’s a color photo of the dolphin just about to go whale-sliding:

Look Ma, No Hands! (photo credit: L. Mazzuca)

And here’s a black and white series of shots that captures the full adventure sequence:

The second encounter also occurred on a January afternoon, this time off the northwest coast of Maui, when an adult female bottlenose dolphin swam up to a mother humpback whale and her calf. After diving underwater, the dolphin and mother whale resurfaced with the dolphin resting across the mother whale’s rostrum. The mother then proceeded to lift the dolphin a total of six times over 8.5 minutes, with the dolphin either lying on her stomach or right side during the lifts, which varied in length from four to 45 seconds. Again, the dolphin made no attempt to escape and held her position in such a way as to facilitate the whale’s lifting.

Here’s a sequence of photos showing this second duo demonstrating the proper technique for lifting a relaxed-looking dolphin:

The authors of the Aquatic Mammals paper considered alternate explanations for these interactions, including whether they represented an aggressive whale response to an antagonistic dolphin approach, whether the whales were demonstrating concern regarding perceived distress in the dolphins, or whether the cetaceans were simply playing together. They found the first two hypotheses to be unlikely – among other things, the interactions were too cooperative and relaxed in pace to be aggressive, and the dolphins were in good health and showed no evidence of distress. In the end, while the authors didn’t rule out the possibility that maternal instinct was involved in the whales’ lifting behavior, they concluded that the best explanation was that these were simply instances of interspecies play between the bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales.

Further, these bouts of play between dolphins and whales may not be all that uncommon, as back within the friendly confines of YouTube I was able to locate a video documenting another episode in which a bottlenose dolphin went for a ride on the rostrum of a humpback whale:

Play may serve a number of important purposes – for example, it may provide an avenue for intelligent, social animals like dolphins and whales to experiment with their surroundings, hone their physical skills and learn how to interact collaboratively with others. But aside from any practical evolutionary significance, I like to think of these encounters as illustrating how animals can, on occasion, take a few minutes away from the serious business of survival to share some pure joy and wonder with a fellow being, even a fellow being of a different species.

So, all of this is comforting. If dolphins and whales (and other animals who form interspecies bonds) can find a way to communicate playfulness with each other and to share experiences without any kind of a common language, perhaps we humans can do a bit better ourselves. Maybe some of the divides we see today – political discord, religious conflict, international posturing, cultural and racial inequities – aren’t so unbridgeable after all. Perhaps all we need to do is to remember an uplifting dolphin story or two.

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ResearchBlogging.org1Deakos, M., Branstetter, B., Mazzuca, L., Fertl, D., & Mobley, J. (2010). Two Unusual Interactions Between a Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and a Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Hawaiian Waters Aquatic Mammals, 36 (2), 121-128 DOI: 10.1578/AM.36.2.2010.121.

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Dolphin Curiosity: Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake

You’ve just finished a delicious sushi dinner and you’re stuffed; you couldn’t possibly eat another bite. Still, when the diners next to you are served, you can’t help looking over, just to make sure that they, the other dolphins, aren’t getting a better meal.

That’s right, you’re a bottlenose dolphin, and you’re curious. Curious not because you’re going to do anything about it, but simply because you want to be sure that you haven’t missed out on anything. You want knowledge for knowledge’s sake, however painful it might be.

Humans often need to know certain things, even when finding out opens the doors to an unpleasant discovery. After the worker receives a raise, he can’t help poking around to see whether his coworker received a larger increase. After the shopper buys a large flat screen TV, she keeps looking at advertising circulars to see whether she paid too much. While our curiosity sometimes serves a clear purpose (perhaps that raise can still be renegotiated, maybe that TV can be returned), we often persist in our quest for potentially negative information even when it is too late to change anything, even after the raise has been formally accepted and the TV can no longer be returned. Research on human-decision-making suggests that we act this way because we find the uncertainty of “not knowing” to be uncomfortable. Finding out even the most-unpleasant truths can relieve us from ruminating obsessively over our suspicions, enable us to make sense of our missed opportunities, assist us in coming to terms with our past decisions, and ultimately allow us to regulate our moods in a healthy fashion.

But dolphins? The actions of nonhuman animals are not typically described in these terms. Rather, we find utilitarian explanations – a tangible benefit to compensate the animal for the energy and risk of exploration, a way in which the animal’s curiosity will improve its fitness or survival chances.

OMG, do you see what the Snorkersons are having for dinner?! (image credit: Peter Asprey)

Recently, though, a research team from Israel reported in the Journal of Economic Psychology on a clever experiment indicating that bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are much like humans in seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The researchers studied a group of eight bottlenose dolphins at a “commercial sea enclosure” as they were fed over a seven-month period. The dolphins were fed meals of varying size five times a day, with all dolphins eating at the same time. The dolphins were fed from three separate rafts, with each dolphin assigned one of the rafts and summoned to the proper feeding location with a specific sound signal. During the study period, the researchers observed a total 1,250 dolphin feedings and made special note whenever a dolphin went to over to another raft to explore what other dolphins were being fed.

One of the researchers’ hypotheses was that, to the extent the dolphins sought out knowledge for knowledge’s sake (described in the paper as “Non-Instrumental Curiosity”), they would increase this behavior once their basic survival needs had been satisfied. The researchers were assisted in exploring this hypothesis by two factors: first, about halfway through the study, the dolphins were put on a diet, receiving approximately 15% less food per day on average for the remainder of the testing period, and second, during the latter portion of the experiment the dolphins’ sexual interactions increased markedly due to higher water temperatures and seasonal changes. (Note to self: watch out for pods of horny dolphins as the impacts of global warming become more severe.)

The researchers found that, over the course of the experiment, dolphins visited other feeding rafts 26% of the time (325 of 1,250 feedings). All dolphins visited other rafts, but the percentage of visits ranged from 11.3% to 37.9%, indicating individual differences in curiosity among dolphins. Because the dolphins managed to obtain food scraps on only three occasions (i.e., less than 1% of the time), the research team concluded that it wasn’t likely that the dolphins were using their explorations as a foraging strategy. Moreover, the researchers statistically analyzed the explorations and did not find correlations between the visiting behavior and the dolphins’ known social structure (that is, associations between mothers and calves, adolescent males and females, etc.). In short, there were no obvious benefits to the dolphins’ behavior, and the results supported the premise that they were visiting other feeding rafts out of Non-Instrumental Curiosity.

Hrmph... Next time let's put the researchers on a diet, and see how it impacts *their* behavior (image credit: Laaude at fr.wikipedia)

In addition, the researchers found that dolphins were significantly more likely to visit other rafts when they received larger meals, and that their overall curiosity level was much lower during the phase of the experiment when they were on a diet (they visited other rafts only 13% of the time when on a diet, compared to 38% of the time during the non-dieting phase). Further, during the dolphins’ more sexually active phase, they significantly decreased their exploratory behavior — they visited other rafts only 12% of the time during this phase, compared to 43% during the period when they were less sexually active. (Note though that, because there was a substantial overlap between the dieting and sexually active phases, it wasn’t really possible to separately tease out the relative impacts of these two factors.)

The researchers summarized their results as follows:

In this manuscript, we show that bottlenose dolphins as well, sometimes seek to increase their knowledge concerning food allocated to other dolphins in the group, even though such knowledge could not increase self-food availability. This search increases when own feed is augmented, and decreases when sexually engaged (a competing basic need to food and curiosity), suggesting that knowledge for knowledge’s sake emerges particularly when the organisms’ basic needs (e.g., food) have been satisfied, allowing higher-level psychological needs to emerge.

It seems to me that another way to look at Non-Instrumental Curiosity is that it may be an indication that dolphins are sensitive to inequity and that they possess a sense of fairness, and that it would be interesting to see further research into related cognitive realms, such as their capacity for altruism, empathy and self-awareness. While that may be the subject of future experiments and later AnimalWise posts, for now I’m kind of curious – where did you get all of that tasty looking mackerel?

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ResearchBlogging.orgShani, Y., Cepicka, M., & Shashar, N. (2011). Keeping up with the Joneses: Dolphins’ search knowledge for knowledge’s sake Journal of Economic Psychology, 32 (3), 418-424 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2011.02.014.

Grief in Animals

I’ve been thinking about grief lately. It can be so overpowering – the dull ache of emptiness, the stabbing pain of loss, and the prism of sadness that transforms the bright colors of everyday life into a harsh and alien landscape. Consumed by grief, we are alone; yet somehow our solitary suffering can end up strengthening the bonds we have with others we know and love.

I’ve also been thinking about grief in animals, and what we know about it. When our cat Puggsley died, our younger Siamese, Moose, felt the full impact of the loss. The two had always been close, perhaps tied together by their mutual skepticism over Wednesday, our third cat and official people-pleaser. Moose and Puggsley were constant companions, playmates, napping buddies, and a rather frightening pair of mischief makers. When Puggsley became old and frail, he would curl up stiffly by the fireplace, and Moose would bed down near him. At the very end, Moose was right there, tenderly licking Puggsley as he was overcome by a seizure. And after he was gone, she mourned – she was lost without her friend, and had little appetite or energy for weeks. She never bedded down by the fireplace again. How do I know this was grief? Well, it was obvious; I just know.

Puggsley and Moose

But what do we really know about grief in animals – that is, in a scientific sense? Not particularly much, it turns out.

We are (mostly) beyond the era in which animals were considered thoughtless automatons, incapable of feeling pain and other emotions. Still, there have been relatively few formal studies of how animals experience grief.

In a way, this isn’t so surprising. For one, opportunities to systematically observe grieving behavior in the wild are rare and, if you think about it, it’s difficult to design ethical studies intended to cause social animals to grieve in captive settings. Also, what specifically do you test for and how do you quantify and evaluate an inherently subjective experience like grief? It’s tough enough to evaluate this sort of thing in humans, who can respond to questionnaires and use language to express their emotions….

As a result, most the scientific literature about grief in animals is anecdotal or observational in nature, and in many of these accounts it’s clear that otherwise objective researchers have struggled to come up with scientific ways of reporting what, in the end, are their own reactions, what they just know.

Although the record is sparse everywhere, there have been some recent papers on grief in primates. Brian Switek, who writes the Laelaps blog for Wired Magazine, has written a terrific piece on this research in his “What Death Means to Primates” posting (I strongly encourage you to check out Laelaps; it’s one of the best blogs out there on paleontology, evolution, and the history of science).

As Brian recounts in detail, studies have documented chimpanzee and other primate mothers who have continued to carry dead infants, sometimes for weeks and even to the point of mummification. In one of the studies1, researchers described two chimpanzee mothers (Jire and Vuavua) in Bossou, Guinea, who carried their dead babies (aged 1.2 years old and 2.6 years old, respectively) after they had died in a respiratory epidemic, grooming them regularly, chasing away flies, and carrying them during all travel. The researchers pondered:

An obvious and fascinating question concerns the extent to which Jire and Vuavua “understood” that their offspring were dead. In many ways they treated the corpses as live infants, particularly in the initial phase following death. Nevertheless they may well have been aware that the bodies were inanimate, consequently adopting carrying techniques never normally employed with healthy young (although mothers of handicapped young have also been known to respond appropriately).

In another study2, James Anderson, Alasdair Gillies and Louise Lock reported on the peaceful death of an older chimpanzee, Pansy, who lived in a safari park. They videotaped the reactions of Pansy’s companions and observed a number of behaviors that they found to be comparable to human bereavement. The degree to which the researchers sought out human counterparts to the chimps’ behavior is evident from the following description in their paper:

During Pansy’s final days the others were quiet and attentive to her, and they altered their nesting arrangements (respect, care, anticipatory grief). When Pansy died they appeared to test for signs of life by closely inspecting her mouth and manipulating her limbs (test for pulse or breath). Shortly afterwards, the adult male attacked the dead female, possibly attempting to rouse her (attempted resuscitation); attacks may also have expressed anger or frustration (denial, feelings of anger towards the deceased). The adult daughter remained near the mother’s corpse throughout the night (night-time vigil), while Blossom groomed Chippy for an extraordinary amount of time (consolation, social support). All three chimpanzees changed posture frequently during the night (disturbed sleep). They removed straw from Pansy’s body the next morning (cleaning the body). For weeks post-death, the survivors remained lethargic and quiet, and they ate less than normal (grief, mourning). They avoided sleeping on the deathbed platform for several days (leaving objects or places associated with the deceased untouched).

With this focus, it’s not surprising that they concluded by proposing that “chimpanzees’ awareness of death has been underestimated.”

Also, more anecdotally, many were moved by the apparent grief captured in this poignant National Geographic photo of chimpanzees at a rehabilitation center peering at the lifeless body of Dorothy, their long-time companion, being taken to her burial:

Chimpanzee burial (National Geographic, photo: Monica Szczupider)

There has also been some research into the behavior of elephants towards the dead and dying. In one study3, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Shivani Bhalla, George Wittemyer and Fritz Vollrath reported on the death of Eleanor, a matriarch elephant in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. They were able to use GPS technology to track the movements of elephants in Eleanor’s family and in other families as they reacted to her collapse and subsequent death. The researchers found that Eleanor was visited frequently by both related and unrelated elephants, concluding:

Combined with earlier work and the data of other scientists it leads to the conclusion that elephants have a generalized response to suffering and death of conspecifics and that this is not restricted to kin. It is an example of how elephants and humans may share emotions, such as compassion, and have an awareness and interest about death.

Grace visiting Eleanor's body (photo: Douglas-Hamilton, et al)

In another paper4, Karen McComb, Lucy Baker and Cynthia Moss described experiments in which they assessed elephants’ strong interest in and sometimes dramatic reactions to elephant bones and tusks. After systematically presenting elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya with different combinations of elephant and other animal skulls, ivory and pieces of wood, the researchers found that the elephants were significantly more interested in elephant skulls and tusks than they were in the skulls of other animals or in the wood, but that they did not demonstrate a special affinity to the skulls or ivory of deceased relatives. The following video provides a nice glimpse into the way in which elephants seem to be fascinated by elephant bones and tusks:

Several reports have also documented cetaceans reacting with apparent grief. In one report5, for example, Mark Simmonds described an incident in which two male orcas appeared to grieve over the death of a female orca thought to be their mother. For years, the two males had spent all their time swimming with this female. After her death, the males were seen swimming together but apart from all other orcas for a day or two, repeatedly visiting the places that their mother had passed in her last few days. In another instance, Robin Baird of the Cascadia Research Collective reported seeing two orcas, a mother and adult son, swimming with a dead calf in the Puget Sound, with the mother balancing the calf on her rostrum or carrying it on top of her head and occasionally lifting it out of the water, and both adults diving deep to recover the baby when it began sinking.

Dolphin and calf (Tethys Research)

Scientists at the Tethys Research Institute related a similar occurrence off the coast of Greece, where a mother bottlenose dolphin was seen interacting with a dead newborn calf. Their description vividly underscores the difficulties in evaluating these sorts of situations from a scientific perspective:

Whilst researchers must avoid being driven by their own feelings and make arbitrary interpretations, in this case it was quite clear that the mother was mourning. She seemed to be unable to accept the death, and was behaving as if there was any hope of rescuing her calf. She lifted the little corpse above the surface, in an apparent late attempt to let the calf breath. She also pushed the calf underwater, perhaps hoping that the baby could dive again. These behaviours were repeated over and over again, and sometimes frantically, during two days of observation.

The mother did never separate from her calf. From the boat, researchers and volunteers could hear heartbreaking cries while she touched her offspring with the rostrum and pectoral fins. Witnessing such desperate behaviour was a shocking experience for those on board the research boat.

Finally, Marc Bekoff (he of the Yellow Snow fame) has written an eloquent article that includes many additional anecdotes regarding animal grief in his Psychology Today column.

Ultimately, there is much we will never be able to understand regarding how animals experience the world. We can trace commonalities between human and other animal brain structures and neural pathways associated with emotional experiences, and we can try to add more systematic observations to our collection of behavioral anecdotes, but in some fundamental ways the animal mind (and, for that matter, the mind of other humans) will always be cloaked in private experience, inaccessible to us. Moreover, as some of the accounts in this post have illustrated, our attempts at understanding animal emotions are inevitably colored by our own human experiences. We can know human grief, but how can we understand what it means to experience chimp grief, or elephant grief, or orca grief?

Nevertheless, just because we cannot fully comprehend what we see in other animals, that does not mean that grief in animals does not exist or that animals cannot lead rich emotional lives. Indeed, what we do see is a pattern that makes it increasing clear that death can impact other animals profoundly.

How do I know this? Just ask Moose, Puggsley or Wednesday – I just know.

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ResearchBlogging.org1Biro, D., Humle, T., Koops, K., Sousa, C., Hayashi, M., & Matsuzawa, T. (2010). Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants Current Biology, 20 (8) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.031.

2Anderson, J., Gillies, A., & Lock, L. (2010). Pan thanatology Current Biology, 20 (8) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.010.

3Douglas-Hamilton, I., Bhalla, S., Wittemyer, G., & Vollrath, F. (2006). Behavioural reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100 (1-2), 87-102 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2006.04.014.

4McComb, K., Baker, L., & Moss, C. (2006). African elephants show high levels of interest in the skulls and ivory of their own species Biology Letters, 2 (1), 26-28 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2005.0400.

5Simmonds, M. (2006). Into the brains of whales Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100 (1-2), 103-116 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2006.04.015.

What’s Up With the Male Dolphins of Shark Bay Who Don’t Use Sponges?

As discussed in detail in a recent AnimalWise post, a group of female bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia has enjoyed quite a bit of attention of late for creatively using marine basket sponges as tools to assist them in rooting out bottom-dwelling fish. While the spotlight has been on the females, not much has been said about the males who (despite growing up fin-to-fin with sisters who learn how to use sponges) generally do not become spongers. The researchers studying the sponging behavior have not explored the lack of male sponging in depth, but have hypothesized that the males may be too focused on establishing and maintaining “alliances” to be able to devote the time and effort necessary to become specialized sponge-using foragers.1

I can't figure out that sponging thing either... (photo credit: Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

So what are these male alliances all about, and why are they so important?

Fortunately, a study published in the August 23, 2011 issue of Biology Letters2 provides some new detail and insight into male bottlenose dolphin alliances in Shark Bay.

In a surprise to most likely no one, the alliances are all about sex – maximizing a male’s chances of being able to mate. What is surprising, however, is the level of complexity of these male relationships.

Only humans and Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins are known to have multiple-level male alliances within a social network.

The researchers already knew that the Shark Bay males formed two distinct levels of alliance: first-order groupings of three (or, less frequently, two) males who cooperate to establish and maintain “consortships” with females, and second-order alliances comprised of two or more primary groups who band together to take females from other alliances and/or to defend against such “theft” attempts.

In itself, this degree of cooperation is notable, as alliances and coalitions within social groups are considered to be a hallmark of social complexity (for a posting on female elephant social networks, see here, and for hyena social dynamics, see here). The researchers put it succinctly: “Only humans and Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins are known to have multiple-level male alliances within a social network.” (AnimalWise aside: why are males less apt to have multi-tier social networks than females? Ok, perhaps I don’t need to ask….)

Are you in my second-order alliance? This is all so complicated! (photo credit: Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

In this most recent study, the research team describes a Shark Bay male dolphin society that is even more complex than previously reported – one that actually has three levels of nested alliances among males.

The researchers spent over five years observing 121 frequently-seen males in over 500 consortships, concluding that amicable low-level associations (i.e., third-order alliances) were regularly occurring between specific second-order alliances and trios or other second-order alliances. The researchers further noted that fights involving multiple groups of males suggested that the third-order alliances, like the second-order ones, are employed in conflicts over females, as higher-order alliances could be useful if second-order partners were not around when rivals appeared.

A few other interesting research findings include:

  • There was a nearly continuous range in the size of second-order alliances, which had between six and 14 members.
  • There did not appear to be a relationship between the size of the second-order alliances and how stable (long-lasting) their component first-order trios were.
  • Most of the males participated in second-order alliances, but a subset of five trios did not. Of these five trios, four were comprised of older males whose prior second-order alliance partners had disappeared over time. The researchers surmised that these particular dolphins may have participated in third-order alliances because they were particularly in need of assistance in protecting and obtaining females.
  • Most of the first-order trios associated with only one second-order alliance, but a small subset (around 3%) associated with more than one second-order alliance.

So, to sum up, while (a subset of about 1/11 of) the female bottlenoses of Shark Bay are engaging in specialized tool use with marine sponges, the males are absorbed in complex Machiavellian political relationships and sexual maneuvering. Hmm, sounds a bit familiar.

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1Mann, J., Sargeant, B., Watson-Capps, J., Gibson, Q., Heithaus, M., Connor, R., & Patterson, E. (2008). Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges? PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003868.

2Connor, R., Watson-Capps, J., Sherwin, W., & Krutzen, M. (2010). A new level of complexity in the male alliance networks of Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) Biology Letters, 7 (4), 623-626 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0852.

Female Dolphins Sponge Their Way to Success

After 27 years, scientists finally appear to have unraveled most of the mystery surrounding a very enterprising group of (primarily) female bottlenose dolphins (tursiops aduncus) who live in Shark Bay, off the coast of Western Australia.

Why are those dolphins looking at me like that? (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

The story opens in 1984, when observers first noticed that some of the Shark Bay dolphins were breaking off conical marine basket sponges and wearing them over their beaks (rostra). Because only a small percentage of the dolphins in the area engaged in this behavior and it was very difficult to see what they were doing with the sponges, especially when they were underwater, the first research on this behavior wasn’t published until over a decade later.

Preliminary Findings: Tool Use by a Few Females

In a 1997 article in Ethology1, a team of researchers led by Janet Mann of Georgetown University described their initial findings: five female dolphins were regularly seen with sponges, and four additional dolphins (only one of which was a male) were each seen carrying sponges on a single occasion. The regular sponge users were relatively solitary, tended to use the sponges in a deep water channel area, and did not participate in the group feeding and social aggregations to which other dolphins in the group were attracted.

The researchers weren’t sure what the dolphins were doing with the sponges, but they assumed that there had to be some sort of functional advantage, since the sponges were often quite large, covering a large portion of the dolphin’s face, interfering with normal use of the mouth, contributing to hydrodynamic drag, and potentially impacting the ability to engage in echolocation. They considered three possibilities: that the dolphins were playing with the sponges, that the sponges contained some medicinal or other useful compound, or that the dolphins were using the sponges as a tool to aid in foraging.

They concluded that it wasn’t likely that the sponges were being used as toys, as the spongers were relatively solitary, used the sponges methodically for hours at a time, year after year, and didn’t engage in typical play postures, splashing or vocalizations as they carried the sponges. Similarly, they determined that medicinal or similar uses were unlikely, since, among other things, the regular sponge users all seemed healthy and there were no indications that they were ingesting the sponges (although the researchers conceded that this could be difficult to observe).

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to sponge I go! (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

On the other hand, it did seem likely that the dolphins were using the sponges to help them forage for prey: they were seen eating fish when engaging in sponging behavior; they invested an amount of time in carrying sponges similar to that invested by other foraging dolphins; and they made sounds and generally behaved in ways consistent with foraging. The researchers speculated that sponges might be used to protect the dolphin’s face, either from spines or stingers of prey animals or from the abrasive sea floor as they flushed out burrowing prey. In either case, they believed that this would constitute “tool use,” something that had been reported in captive dolphins but never before in the wild.

Finally, the researchers drew no conclusions on why males didn’t engage in sponging, except to note that perhaps it required a degree of solitary living that was at odds with their need to form and maintain cohesive and cooperative alliances.

Additional Findings: A Cultural Tradition of Tool Use among a Related Group of Females

Next, in 2005, Mann’s researcher team expanded on its findings in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2, with salient points of the research including the following:

  • Sponges Are Foraging Tools. By this time, the researchers had found 15 adults in the community who regularly used sponges, only one of whom was a male. Although not a focus of the paper, it appears that the researchers had concluded by this time that the dolphins were indeed using the sponges as tools to protect their rostra as they foraged for prey on the sea floor.
  • “Sponging Eve.” The researchers tested the mitochondrial DNA of the regular spongers and found that sponging had been passed on mainly along a single matriline (line of descent from mother to daughter) and that, due to the high degree of genetic relatedness, all spongers likely descended from one recent “Sponging Eve.”
  • Female Social Culture. After considering in detail whether the sponging behavior could have resulted from either a genetic propensity or some unique aspect of the deep-water channels where the most of the sponging occurred, the researchers found the evidence for these alternatives lacking and concluded that by far the best explanation was that the sponge use was being socially learned and transmitted from mother to daughter. The researchers weren’t overly surprised by this finding, given that studies had already shown that dolphins have uncommonly complex cognitive and imitative skills and the ability to excel at vocal and social learning.
  • Uncommon Cultural Diversity. It was particularly rare to see this sort of cultural phenomenon in a small subset of the overall population (a single maternal line comprising only about 10% of the females in the group). In other studies (for example, involving apes), this type of culturally learned behavior is seen across the entire population.
  • Can’t Explain Males. Once again, the researchers surmised that perhaps males didn’t engage in sponging because they had to associate at high levels with alliance partners, but they left this point open.

The Story Continues: Spongers Are Fit

The story continued to unfold in 2008, when Mann and her team published a paper in PLoS ONE3 that focused in more on whether sponging was an advantageous behavior, or whether the spongers were in some fashion subordinate or less competitive and were making the “best of a bad situation.”

I don't know what you mean, it's no more elaborate than the other hats at the Royal Wedding... (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

By this point, recurrent sponging had been seen in 41 of the dolphins and a few more of them were male (29 were females, 6 were males, and 6 were of unknown sex). This still represented a small percentage (about 11% of adult females were spongers) and, although it now appeared that more than one matriline was involved, the data continued to show that the behavior was consistently passed down from mother to daughter, and less frequently from mother to son: there were no instances observed where a calf adopted the behavior if its mother wasn’t a sponger, and of 19 offspring born to sponger females who could be observed and whose sex was known, 91% of the daughters (10 of 11) and 25% of the sons (2 of 8) adopted sponging.

Further, the researchers found that the spongers were highly specialized, not using other hunting techniques and spending approximately 96% of their foraging time using sponges. In fact, the researchers concluded that, due to their lifestyle and specialization, spongers actually used tools more than any non-human animal.

So, was the sponging advantageous or a way of coping for not particularly well-adapted dolphins? Well, the researchers did find that spongers were more solitary and spent more time foraging at deeper depths and on longer dives, but noted that they really didn’t seem to suffer from any kind of fitness cost, as their calving success was equivalent to that of other females in the population.

Since there was no evidence that any kind of competition for food was relegating the spongers to their strategy, the research concluded that sponging simply seemed to be an “all-or-none phenomenon,” that required a specialized approach and a commitment to a single foraging type, but that most likely opened up a particular hunting niche in a diverse environment. While other dolphins could theoretically adopt the strategy, the researchers noted that daughters in particular tend to adopt their mothers’ foraging strategy, and unless the mother was a sponger, a daughter might simply not have had sufficient exposure to develop this highly specialized technique while a calf.

Once again, the team hypothesized about the males, stating: “Male offspring are exposed to sponging as often as female offspring, but do not seem to adopt the behaviour early, if at all. … [M]ales likely range more widely post-weaning, focus on establishing long-term alliances, and cannot afford to adopt foraging tactics that both demand extensive effort and specialization and limit their range and access to females.”

The researchers offered no opinions about whether the male dolphins were simply slow on the uptake or whether they associated sponges with housework to be avoided.

The Latest Chapter: Explaining the Purpose of Sponging

While all of this research had answered many questions and shed light on a fascinating example of tool use in wild female dolphins, one fundamental question remained. Dolphins are great at using echolocation to detect prey (even prey that is buried), so why do the Shark Bay spongers probe the debris-covered sea floor with their noses, risking injury (even with the protection afforded by the sponges) instead of minimizing sea floor contact by simply echolocating for buried prey as they do in other locations (for example, the Bahamas)?

What a mess! This sea floor needs a good sponging! (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

This is the question is answered in the latest chapter, a research paper published last week in PLoS ONE4. Mann’s research team had fun with this one, grabbing poles and going sponging themselves. What they found, aside from the fact that dolphins are far more graceful than people, was that the nature of the prey turned up by sponging helps explain the dolphins’ behavior.

It turns out that most of the bottom-dwelling fish that hide in Shark Bay the sea bottom lack swim bladders, gas-filled chambers used by fish to control their buoyancy as they swim up and down. Because they lack the major characteristic that distinguishes their density from sea water, they generate relatively weak acoustic signals and are difficult to detect with echolocation. In addition, the debris (rock, shell and coral) on the sea floor in the area seemed likely to cause “interfering reverberation and echo clutter,” which would further reduce the effectiveness of echolocation.

Moreover, it’s worth it to go after these swim bladderless fish. They are attractive targets, as they are reliably present on the sea floor and exhibit consistent, predictable behavior when rousted out of their hiding places, allowing the dolphins to adopt a single efficient technique as they sponge. Further, bladderless fish tend to have a relatively high fat content, providing hungry dolphins with a particularly energy-rich meal.

So, the sponging female dolphins of Shark Bay really are quite remarkable. They have established a mother-daughter subculture of tool use in the wild, successfully devising a highly specialized way of exploiting an attractive niche in their diverse environment.

You go girl(s)!

_____

1Smolker, R., Richards, A., Connor, R., Mann, J., & Berggren, P. (2010). Sponge Carrying by Dolphins (Delphinidae, Tursiops sp.): A Foraging Specialization Involving Tool Use? Ethology, 103 (6), 454-465 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.1997.tb00160.x.

2Krutzen, M. (2005). Cultural transmission of tool use in bottlenose dolphins Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (25), 8939-8943 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0500232102.

3Mann, J., Sargeant, B., Watson-Capps, J., Gibson, Q., Heithaus, M., Connor, R., & Patterson, E. (2008). Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges? PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003868.

4Patterson, E., & Mann, J. (2011). The Ecological Conditions That Favor Tool Use and Innovation in Wild Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops sp.) PLoS ONE, 6 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022243.

Charismatic Megafauna Day – Surfing Dolphins!

It’s Charismatic Megafauna Day here at AnimalWise!

As regular readers know, this blog is dedicated to animals of all stripes (and spots). Animal intelligence isn’t limited to the mammals; animal value does not require fur; animal awesomeness can arrive without an endoskeleton; and sometimes animal insight wears feathers. Rest assured that future posts will continue to introduce remarkable capabilities and amazing behaviors in all sorts of creatures, some well-known and considered attractive, others less familiar perhaps a bit frightening looking.

CMF Day, though, is an opportunity for us to shamelessly seek attention by featuring leading celebrities of the animal world. On CMF Day, pandas and elephants and whales reign supreme. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

I can't help smiling

So, on this inaugural Charismatic Megafauna Day, the spotlight is on the playful bottlenose dolphin. As the video below observes, dolphins are one of the very few species that continues to play into adulthood, and play can be an indication of an inventive brain and a restless mind. Play may also strengthen social bonds. Mostly, however, it’s just fun.

Surf’s up!

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