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.
In my first post, I explained that many of the male dolphins in Shark Bay associate in three levels of “nested alliances” (What’s a “nested alliance”?). To explain this phenomena more fully, I’d like to take you back to 2010 for an observation that both clarifies these levels of alliances and motivates my current work.
September 23, 2010- The peak mating season has begun, and the bay is full of energy. We left heading North out of Monkey Mia, encountering three members of the 2nd order alliance PD in the first channel. Today, PRI WAB and NAT were without Phantom (or her calf Opera), who we had seen with them just a few days prior. We were curious – it seemed likely the males had been competing, and we wondered if we might find Phantom with a new group.
We continued North of the Banks where we found three members of the 2nd order alliance Wow Crowd (WC) – Wow, Pik, and Myrtle, consorting the female Stetson. Within 10 minutes they joined with three other Wow Crowd members – Latch, Gripe and Vee – who were consorting Phantom!
We stayed with them to confirm the consortship as they travelled slowly northwest in two tight subgroups. During that hour the group was taking it easy, slowly traveling and resting together, sometimes one breaking off to forage while another male stayed close by the female in his group. The alliances never strayed more than 100m from each other.
“A rush of white water on the horizon shattered the calm as they met in a wash of splashing, flukes flying.”
A rush of white water on the horizon shattered the calm as a group of 12 dolphins came charging in towards the Wow Crowd. They met in a wash of splashing, flukes flying. The incoming group included 6 of the 2nd order alliance Arnie’s Mates (AM) as well as 5 males in the 2nd order alliance Hooligans (HG). Immediately, a seventh member of the WC whom we had not seen yet today rushed in to join the fight.
At the surface, a mass of dolphins was churning in towards each other, surging and charging at times. Quick jerks of dorsal fins indicated aggression below. We could hear quick noisy exhales called ”chuffs” as groups numbering two to five dove in synchrony.
After five minutes the groups split briefly – Phantom was still with the WC. Another minute of intense fighting – surging, tail hitting, and aggression and the groups split again – the WC paused at the surface in a tight group, and AM/HG still in a excited churning flurry.
But this time Latch and Gripe weren’t with the snagging WC – they were in the fight. One male from the WC fizzed from the group, charging into the fight, surging with Latch and Gripe behind a male from AM. Individuals were bodily pushed up to the surface from below, and we could easily hear loud whistles from the boat.
The group continued surging head to head; sub-groups surfaced in unison for another five minutes. Now 12 minutes after the attack, the WC with Stetson and Phantom were a tight pack, maintaining distance from the AM/HG. Screams, chuffs, and weird chirps emanate from the WC group. Latch returned briefly before re-joining the AM/HG group, trailing at first behind an incredible surging mass of dolphins.
Nearly a half-hour into the fight a new group appeared on the horizon – the AM/HG group moved towards them, but the new group did not join. These are dolphins from outside of our study range – but we’ve seen them with AM enough to call them ”friends of AM” – perhaps less habituated members of the AM alliance. Within a few minutes they had disappeared completely.
Intense fighting ensued for another 6 minutes – huge group surges accompanied by tail hits, whistles in air, and a chase. Phantom and her calf Opera were amongst the fighting males. The mass of dolphins surged in unison again as another six males from yet another 2nd order alliance (KS) approach the fighting group. Its not clear whether the six KS ever got closer than 10 meters to AM/HG, but coincident with their arrival (37 minutes after the initial encounter) the WC/KS and AM/HG groups split again, this time with AM/HG porpoising and leaping rapidly south – away from WC/KS. The KS socialized excitedly amongst themselves, but were no longer near to the WC.
We moved over to the WC who were traveling slowly together. We quickly identified all 7 males and Stetson, but Phantom and Opera were gone. The WC rode the bow of our boat, the males petting with their pectoral fins. We triple checked the group membership, snapping photographs of fins to keep the data complete, and turned away to chase down the still porpoising AM/HG group.
“We arrived at an intense social group with splashing, displaying, and males porpoising in synchrony, with Phantom in the middle of the excitement.”
We arrived at an intense social group with splashing, displaying, and males porpoising in synchrony, with Phantom in the middle of the excitement. They had taken her from the WC and now it became clear that three AM males had begun a new consortship. The 5 HG males eventually departed, slowly leaving as the AM group formed two subgroups – each with three males and one female; the Hooligans having gained nothing that day except perhaps a debt to be repaid in the future.