National Geographic Grantee Whitney Friedman is studying some of the smartest creatures in the sea- dolphins. Their complex alliances and social interactions may be more similar to humans than any other species. Follow her expedition on Explorers Journal as she joins a 30-year study on male alliances among bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia’s Shark Bay.
(The Krokers and Blues Brothers compete over the female, Blip. Photos by Whitney Friedman, Dolphin Alliance Project)
Meet the Eligible Bachelors
What a phenomenal day! The water was glassy calm for most of the day, and we had some amazing observations – including *two* large competitions among four second-order alliances of males, and some really interesting observations to boot.
Early in the day we saw one of our focal males in the group of allied dolphins called The Krokers (KS), in a tight resting group with two non-KS males. This was very odd, as the male dolphin (also called Kroker) is a central member of the KS alliance, and we’d never recorded an association between these three. And yet there they were, comfortably hanging out, as if it was always that way.
What had we missed in our months away? These kinds of observations are a critical part of what makes this society so “complex” – individuals maintaining many relationships, some stable, some less so, but nonetheless potentially critical. Had Kroker been kicked out of the KS? Had he joined a new trio of males? And what kind of investment would he have engaged in to be so comfortably associating with this trio?
Our next group was four males in another alliance, the Blues Brothers (BL), who were consorting two females in pairs, both pairs of males excited and engaging in coordinated displays, Jake doing a “rooster strut” with a leap at the end.
Looking far south through my binoculars I spotted something very exciting — a huge group of dolphins appearing and disappearing on the horizon in a tight and temporally coordinated pack. We sped down the bay to catch the fight in action.
We arrived to find a tight group of four males in the second order alliance called the ‘Exfins’ (XF), who we presumed had just lost the female they had been consorting to a surging group of 12 dolphins just ahead of them, including four males in another second order alliance, ‘The Usual Suspects’ (US).
Both groups were still excited, with the XF chasing the US, and two pairs of subadult males who came close to the fight but did not join either group. In the end the XF trailed away slowly, and the US stayed excited, eventually fractioning off into groups until we had an excited group of five and then three – a probable consortship.
Of course, in this case we have no way of knowing which female was originally being consorted by the US, but having seen enough of these fights we surmise from the behavior of the XF that they had been consorting a female and that another group of males had stolen her away in the intense competition that we captured.
Fights like these are really intense moments on our research boat as we spring into action with cameras and our underwater microphone, naming IDs and behaviors as quickly as possible while blasting alongside the dolphins as they chase rapidly across the bay, stopping to attack each other underwater, using their powerful flukes smack each other.
The intense fighting can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours.
In this case we were able to re-sight many of the subgroups involved in the fight, and our large database of surveys gives us a a history of association data from and will be able to reconstruct what we don’t already know from a steady stream of photographs, each sub-group delineated by “blank” photographs. But that’s work for the next windy day. Today, the excitement continued on the bay.
A Second Fight!
A friend radioed us to say that there was a southern right whale close to Monkey Mia – a rare event and the first of its kind this season. We shifted our binoculars to that area of the horizon and at first thought we saw the whale — and then realized that for the first time any of us could remember, we were witnessing a second huge fight!
We blasted ahead again to capture the action, arriving at same time as two KS males, Dangit and Deet, were porpoising in to join more KS males, Ceebie, Imp, and Moggy, in a competition against five BL males along with two GG males, with the female Blip among the excitement. All males involved were fighting intensely, and then the five KS males suddenly stopped and began drifting passively the surface, no longer engaging in the fight.
The other seven males continued their high intensity behavior, porpoising together and engaging in such intense interactions we wonder whether there was still competition among the group. Our hydrophone was picking up intense social sounds and even the crack of bodies hitting underwater. Five males at once came up and reared their heads back before snapping them on the surface of the water.
As the groups carried on again a group of five sub-adult males approached as though they were going to join the fight and then stopped, staying a good 100 meters away from the males. All the while we could still see the five KS males, drifting slowly away, and at the end a pair of PD males (finally!) arrived, but too late it seemed, and there was no attempt from the third order KS-PD associates to re-initiated the fight with the BL & GG (a developing third order association)?
One of the amazing things about glassy days in Shark Bay is that the social network is visible in each survey, and in each group seen but not encountered – the dolphins too numerous for one research boat to attend in a single day. Its as if the social network could be plotted in place, each dolphin and each location lifted for one frame in the continuous fluctuation of this dynamic society.