Dating Advice From Dolphins

As I noted here, I think we need to be very, very careful in extrapolating any observations of animal behaviours to some sort of “natural” human state. Nevertheless, I do think there is something besides amusement value to be gained from looking at how animals interact and pondering the implications for humans. The diversity of animal behaviour means there is no reason to expect we’ll have much to learn from any particular animal about our own tendencies, but patterns can be suggestive if nothing else.

For example, when the Origin of the Species was published people rushed to justify all sorts of terrible things on the basis of the benefits of competition. Herbert Spencer based his philosophy that the weak should be left to die on the idea that this was some sort of law of nature, and would improve the species. Nothing of course to do with his desire to not pay tax. Fascists were actually somewhat more scientifically correct, seeing competition as not necessarily between individuals but larger groupings, which they applied to races or nations.

Aside from the disastrous outcomes of attempts to apply these ideas to humans a closer examination of animal behaviour finds that co-operation is everywhere, and it is not always amongst the closely related. The Jan/Feb edition of Australasian Science has me covering an example particularly troubling for these simplistic views.

Macquarie University PhD student Jo Wiszniewski has been studying the sex lives of Port Stephens dolphins. She found males who co-operate are much more likely to father offspring. Males will often combine to accompany a female who is either ready to breed, or soon will be, keeping rivals at bay for periods that can last for weeks.

Reports of what looks awfully like dolphin pack rape are not hard to find, but it doesn’t seem this is the norm. Wiszniewski says observations are difficult, as the dolphins are often swimming very fast and boats struggle to keep up without posing a threat, but she has not seen any cases of females appearing desperate to get away from accompanying males. While she says her supervisor has it seems that off the east Coast at least such events are rare.

Most of the alliances are small, two or three males in a group, but Wiszniewski tracked one team of four, which she nicknamed The Beatles. When it comes to sexual history however, these guys more closely resemble the Rolling Stones. There were several dozen male dolphins in the waters Wiszniewski is studying, but paternity tests reveal the Beatles fathered 13 out of 32 calves born during the study. Males in three member alliances were also more likely to father offspring than those in pairs, while solo males had almost no success at all.

Surprisingly, the alliances were not between brothers or closely related males, although of course all the dolphins in the area have some common heritage. This removes any “selfish gene” explanation, where the behaviour may be explained by the fact that whichever alliance member succeeds in fathering the offspring similar genes will be passed on.

What I find most interesting about this is not that co-operation works, but that a successful strategy is not more widely adopted. The Beatles are the only alliance of four unrelated males ever observed in a non-human species, as far as Wiszniewski is aware. Teams of two male dolphins are common, and three-male alliances have been observed in the US and Shark Bay, yet the obvious next step has not been seen before. Similarly, males in other species sometimes combine in similar ways in twos or even threes, but Wiszniewski was not aware of non-related four-way alliances, even amongst apes.

Wiszniewski speculates that this is because such an alliance requires both a high level of trust, and significant cognitive ability. “The dolphins need to be aware of third-party relationships – how their alliance partners relate to other males. You don’t want to make an alliance with someone who may cheat on the alliance.” They also need to be able to overcome the desire to interfere on seeing another male having sex with a female they are interested in.

Applied to humans, it would be like saying that those males who can overcome their jealousy at seeing a friend have sex with a woman they like will be rewarded by more sex in total. Is that too big a jump? Probably, but it should be a warning to anyone who things polyamory or swinging are “unnatural”.

Wiszniewski observes that males within an alliance tend to be roughly equally successful at fathering offspring, and thinks alliances work best amongst males who are roughly equally attractive to females (another reason The Beatles is a misnomer). It may be that part of the reason the Beatles are so successful is that they are simply more intelligent than the other dolphins in the area – they have to be to maintain such a complex relationship, but this intelligence means even on their own they might do better than dumber singles. It’s almost certainly too far-fetched to suggest that such alliances may be a driving force for the development of higher intelligence, but hell I’m going to throw it out there anyway.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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