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The Nature of Dolphins

By Michael Mountain

Dolphins help a lost seal…a tangled dolphin asks human divers to free her…whales adopt an orphan dolphin…dolphins nurse a sick family member. Is this dolphin nature?

All stories from the last few days. And these are just the ones where someone happened to be there to video what transpired. How many more such things happen on any given day? Hundreds? Thousands?

In this one video, we see a group of dolphins helping a confused seal pup find her way through the strong currents buffeting her around a rocky shore and back out to the ocean.

Once they guide her out, she swims happily away into the deep. Why did they do this? Are we anthropomorphizing what happened? Or is it in the nature of dolphins to behave like this?

And when, last week, we saw a dolphin tangled in fishing line approach a human diver for help, what did she understand about us humans that led her to conclude not only that we could help her, but that we likely would? (After all, there are lots of manta rays swimming around in the video at the same time, but she doesn’t look to them for help.)

Any of us looking at the video can’t help but be struck by a sense of our commonality with these animals.And then there was the story of a group of dolphins forming themselves into a life raft to support one of their own who was sick and couldn’t make it to the surface to breathe. Certainly, dolphins have strong family bonds. But we’re watching something here, as we’ve also seen with elephants, where the whole extended social group gathers round in an organized, concerted effort.

And then the case of a lone, deformed dolphin finding himself a new home with a family of sperm whales. (The video is copyrighted, but you can check it out here.) Two researchers from Germany followed the group for a week as the dolphin traveled, foraged, and played with both the adult whales and their calves.

Typically, scientists find themselves looking for “scientific” answers for what’s going on. In National Geographic, team member Alexander Wilson wonders why the whales would accept the lone dolphin.

The pod may have regarded the dolphin  as nonthreatening and accepted him by default because of the way adult sperm whales “babysit” their calves.

Sperm whales alternate their dives between group members, always leaving one adult near the surface to watch the juveniles. “What is likely is that the presence of the calves—which cannot dive very deep or for very long—allowed the dolphin to maintain contact with the group,” Wilson said.

Of course, a proverbial Martian could reasonably ask the same kind of questions regarding human behavior, citing evolutionary instincts, preservation of the group, and so on. And these could all be true.

But any of us looking at the video can’t help but feel a sense of commonality with these animals. Separated by tens of millions of years of evolution, we see dolphins behave in ways that are part of their nature in the same way they are part of ours. And, apparently, they see the same thing in us.

Neuroscientist and dolphin expert Dr. Lori Marino of Emory University and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy is the Science Director of the Nonhuman Rights Project. She said it’s not enough to explain away dolphin behavior as being simply adaptive or part of their evolutionary heritage. “They may have a different kind of social bond with their group – in some ways even closer and more personal than do humans and the other great apes.”

“These are behaviors driven by psychological processes, including empathy and sympathy,” she said. “What drives individuals is their recognition that someone needs help – not their evolutionary history. And it turns out that altruism is not uniquely human. Psychology is shaped by evolution but experienced as a ‘here and now’ feeling.”

This inevitably leads to another, and a more troubling, question: Why are dolphins so trusting of humans? They clearly understand that we can help them. So, why do they seem not to know that we can also hurt them – like by taking them captive and massacring them by the hundreds and thousands in the drive hunts of Japan and the Faroe Islands? Why don’t they fight back?

“That’s a key question about their psychology,” Dr. Marino said. “They obviously understand what’s happening, but there’s something about their nature that doesn’t make it easy for them to retaliate. One possibility is that they’re so caught up in the emotion of what’s happening to their group that they don’t respond to what’s coming at them from the outside. It may not occur to them to turn on the forces that are harming them.”

Chimpanzees, by comparison, react to humans with great force when they feel like they may be under attack.

“Dolphins seem to be showing despair rather than anger,” Dr. Marino said. “We really just don’t know why they react the way they do.

“They may have a different kind of social bond with their group – in some ways even closer and more personal than do humans and the other great apes.”

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