All photography provided by The Dolphin Alliance Project
Shark Bay is a marine biologist's paradise and the best place in the world to learn about dolphin intelligence in the wild. Boasting the largest seagrass beds in the world, it is the perfect locale for an enormous population of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphins that live in a society whose complexity has astonished the scientists studying them since the 1980’s. Many animals form alliances or coalitions in competition for food or mates, but The Dolphin Alliance Project discovered that the Shark Bay dolphins form three levels of nested alliances. There is only one other species that does that: Homo sapiens. Just as humans cooperate with friends against foes, from villages to nation states, the dolphins negotiate a labyrinth of friends, rivals, rival friends and friendly rivals in a system so complex that the word "politics" must be invoked. It is no coincidence that humans and dolphins have the biggest brains in the world and the most complex societies.
The Dolphin Alliance Project team is poised to take full advantage of this opportunity by utilizing the newest in technologies to conduct a ten-year coordinated study on all facets of the dolphins' behavior, communication and ecology. During The Dolphin Decade, scientists will map out the alliance relationships, using DNA to discover fathers and other relatives, hydrophone arrays to learn each male's signature whistle (the equivalent of a name) and how they communicate when coordinating alliance and feeding behavior. Drones will assist viewing social interactions from above in detail and allow team members to measure each male’s body size and condition. Remarkably, individual dolphins differ in what they eat and how they catch their prey. Sophisticated new sonars will allow us to map and observe the dolphins' habitat and fish prey to see how those factors impact their alliance behavior. The Dolphin Alliance Project team’s simultaneous studies will enable a fully integrated understanding of the dolphins' complex alliances and social intelligence. Nothing like this has ever been attempted on any dolphin population!
The Dolphin Decade looks to discover...
- The biggest alliance so far discovered had an incredible 14 males--Do even larger ones exist in Shark Bay? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Why do dolphins consort females more in trios in the north and pairs in the south? Are they safer in trios because there are more large sharks? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Are males in trios and larger groups more in the north because there are larger schools of fish for them up north? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Do dolphins need to be in larger groups up north because their rivals can hear them better (if sound travels better in the open water up north compared to the south). The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- We do not know the alliances well at the top of Peron Peninsula, but everything indicates that area to be ground zero for the complexity of dolphin politics in Shark Bay! Will we find even more complex alliances? Will the top of Peron Peninsula prove the have the most complex social interactions in the most complex non-human society on earth? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Who fathers the infants? Do males in pairs and trios 'share equally' or is there a dominant male who gets the 'lions share' of matings? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Most males do not ally with relatives, but do they when they get the chance? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Do males call for help when they get into fights with rivals? Do they call using the names of allies or just a general call for help? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Alliances cooperate to take females from rivals. How do they recruit allies for this task? Do they use specific ways of touching and our sounds? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Are there dominance relationships BETWEEN alliances (the groups of 4-14?). If so, do alliance move away when dominant rival alliances are approaching? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Dolphin allies perform incredible synchronous displays around females. Are the dolphins being creative and making up displays 'as they go'? The dolphin Decade will find out!
- Do dolphins use sound in a similar creative way? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- Almost nothing is known about how dolphins use their huge repertoire of non-whistle sounds in communication. The Dolphin Decade will find out!
- How do dolphin alliances form from all the friendships males have as juveniles? The Dolphin Decade will find out!
What We've Achieved
Found that the Shark Bay dolphins don't just have alliances in their social network, they had 'alliances of alliances', a phenomenon that is a prominent feature of traditional and modern human societies. Dolphins do not live in 'pods' like killer whales as groups are constantly changing in size and membership during the day, just like us! The dolphin society in Shark Bay is the most complex non human society on the planet.
Discovered an incredible third level of alliance formation.
How often individual males are observed consorting females varies within and between alliances.
Male dolphins in alliances move synchronously like marching human soldiers --and like no other animal that forms alliances.
Alliance members will come to the aid of allies in fights from long distances.
Dolphins use special techniques to catch fish, including using sponges as tools to find fish on the bottom, and tail-slaps to scare fish hiding in seagrass. Different dolphins use different fishing techniques!
- We have recently discovered that alliance behavior varies systematically along the length of the peninsula. Males in the north form trios nearly exclusively, while males in the south form pairs more often and the largest groups are in the north. Further, males in the south consort females less often than males in the north. These discoveries have no precedent in other populations and offers a chance to examine ecological influences on alliance formation.
Dolphins have 'names' in the form of individual whistles, and can imitate each others' names. The can also respond with their name when they hear it.
When you take body size into account, dolphins have the largest brains after humans...We have always known the Dolphins have the second largest brain after humans when you take body size into account. But the organization of the brain is very different. The question then becomes, does dolphin behavior in the wild match what we would expect from such a large brain? In Shark Bay we are finding out that the answer is YES!