Male dolphins with high social skills produce more offspring

Male dolphins with high social skills produce more offspring
Male dolphins with high social skills produce more offspring

male friendships

Male dolphins with high social skills produce more offspring

Male dolphins with particularly close and widespread friendships seem to be better received by females. This is what researchers observed in Shark Bay in Western Australia.

A trio of male Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins band together to kidnap a female for mating.

Simon Allen

So far, experts have assumed that it is reserved for us humans to build strategic alliances with individuals who are hardly familiar and to derive benefit from them, for example in trade or military alliances. As an international research team with the participation of the anthropologist Michael Krützen from the University of Zurich now reports in the journal “PNAS”, dolphins also seem to have this ability.

Accordingly, the males of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins live in such a complex social structure that has never been observed in the animal kingdom. And the better the males are at social networking and the higher their social status, the more desirable they are for females.

Long-term research for forty years

The researchers have been following the bottlenose dolphins of Shark Bay in Western Australia for forty years now. They have already found out that males form alliances with their conspecifics, which can range from intensive, lifelong friendships (“second-order alliance”) to loose communities of interest (“third-order alliance”) with more than a hundred individuals. During the mating season, two to three males team up (first-order alliance) to look for a female who is ready to breed, to steal her from other alliances and at the same time to defend the female against rivals.

In an earlier study, the research team was able to show that very popular males with particularly strong relationships with as many second-order alliance partners as possible produce the most offspring. With observations of a total of 121 bottlenose dolphins over a period of five years, they have now been able to show for the first time that this also applies to third-order bonding partners.

Dolphins recognize each other by whistling

It is fascinating, says the anthropologist Krützen, that such a complex system was able to develop in dolphins at all. Then:

“The larger the social network, the more highly developed cognitive skills are required to find one’s way in the social structure.”

So the dolphins have to constantly process and remember who they can trust and who has “cheated” them before.

We humans can remember who has disappointed us before and recognize the person later, mostly by their looks. The dolphins are helped by high-frequency and individual whistles. They use these tones as a kind of acoustic fingerprint to introduce themselves and to be able to clearly identify themselves over large distances under water. Despite strong social bonds, bottlenose dolphins maintain their own whistles and do not conform to their friends in the group. In this way friend and foe can always be distinguished.

As Krützen notes, “the size of the network we observed and its complexity friend and foe have so far only been observed in humans”. This is also exciting because many anthropologists are primarily interested in primates when it comes to tracing the evolutionary history of humans. “Most primates, however, do not come close to having such a complex social structure as dolphins,” says Krützen. Bottlenose dolphins could therefore provide valuable and new insights into the social and cognitive evolution of humans.

The article is in German

Tags: Male dolphins high social skills produce offspring

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