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Dolphin Society ‘Incredibly Complex’

“They would have to be incredibly intelligent … their social lives are very intense … there is constant drama … they live in an open society.”

These are just a few of comments by Professor Richard Connor, who has led a six-year study of bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia. The study is full of revelations about the extraordinarily complex social lives of these animals.

Just for starters, they are the only mammals known to live in an “open society.” That means they don’t patrol or defend territorial boundaries against other groups. Rather, dolphin society is characterized by multiple levels of alliances and counter-alliances.

Describing what he called the “soap operatics” of these relationships, Dr. Connor explained:

“It seems there is constant drama. I have often thought, as I watched their complicated alliance relationships, that their social lives would be mentally and physically exhausting. It seems there is constant drama. I’m glad I’m not a dolphin!”

The study has helped to explain some of what’s going on in the brains of dolphins. We already know that their brains are as complex as humans – in some ways possibly even more so. But we’ve known little about what they use those brains for. That’s in part because most studies have been of dolphins in captivity, rather than the more challenging approach of observing what they do in real life.

The scientists stress that their study was simply of the dolphins of Shark Bay, and their conclusions relate only to these groups. It’s very likely that dolphin societies are at least as varied as you might find between, say, humans in an Inuit village and those living in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Some of the other findings of the study:

  • While most mammals, including humans, live in areas with boundaries, the dolphins of Shark Bay have no such limits and don’t defend any boundaries.
  • The males, in particular, can be quite aggressive toward each other. But their overall lifestyle is far more peaceful than many mammals, including humans. Also, constant squabbling is not their way, and there’s very little aggression among females.
  • The males engage in extensive bisexuality and homosexuality.
  • Males form strong bonds with two or three other males who help them in their search for mates.
  • They also participate in larger “second-order” alliances of four to 14 other males. These alliances often launch attacks on other groups to take their females, and have been seen to last for more than 15 years.
  • And there’s a third level of alliances – groups that maintain friendly relations with all other dolphin groups and can join up with other groups and help out when the other group appears to need additional forces.

Dr. Connor said that only humans and the dolphins of Shark Bay are known to have these multiple levels of male alliances in their social network.

“The Shark Bay dolphins, therefore, present a combination of traits that is unique among mammals,” he said.

Dr. Lori Marino, an expert on the brains and behavior of dolphins, says the study is highly significant in helping us understand more about dolphin culture. For starters, the Shark Bay dolphins seem to have developed a whole different lifestyle and culture from what’s been seen in other groups.

“It shows a remarkable level of behavioral flexibility,” she said. “And it shows that the range of different cetacean cultures – even within a species – is tremendous and much greater than any other nonhuman mammal. We’re seeing how they’re cooperating, thinking about it, deciding on a different way of life. There’s a whole thought process that underlies what they’re doing.”

The study is published in the latest edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.