Lone dolphin with spinal deformity travels among a group of sperm whales.

By Linda Poon – National Geographic News

“In 2011, behavioral ecologists Alexander Wilson and Jens Krause of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Germany were surprised to discover that a group of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus)—animals not usually known for forging bonds with other species—had taken in an adult bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus).”

“The researchers observed the group in the ocean surrounding the Azores (map)—about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) off the coast of Lisbon, Portugal—for eight days as the dolphin traveled, foraged, and played with both the adult whales and their calves. When the dolphin rubbed its body against the whales, they would sometimes return the gesture.

Among terrestrial animals, cross-species interactions are not uncommon. These mostly temporary alliances are forged for foraging benefits and protection against predators, said Wilson.

They could also be satisfying a desire for the company of other animals, added marine biologist John Francis, vice president for research, conservation, and exploration at the National Geographic Society (the Society owns National Geographic News).

Photographs of dogs nursing tiger cubs, stories of a signing gorilla adopting a pet cat, and videos of a leopard caring for a baby baboon have long circulated the Web and caught national attention.

A Rare Alliance

And although dolphins are known for being sociable animals, Wilson called the alliance between sperm whale and bottlenose dolphin rare, as it has never, to his knowledge, been witnessed before.

This association may have started with something called bow riding, a common behavior among dolphins during which they ride the pressure waves generated by the bow of a ship or, in this case, whales, suggested Francis.

“Hanging around slower creatures to catch a ride might have been the first advantage [of such behavior],” he said, adding that this may have also started out as simply a playful encounter.

Wilson suggested that the dolphin’s peculiar spinal shape made it more likely to initiate an interaction with the large and slow-moving whales. “Perhaps it could not keep up with or was picked on by other members of its dolphin group,” he said in an email.

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But the “million-dollar question,” as Wilson puts it, is why the whales accepted the lone dolphin. Among several theories presented in an upcoming paper inAquatic Mammals describing the scientists’ observations, they propose that the dolphin may have been regarded as nonthreatening and that it was accepted 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.

Wilson doesn’t believe the dolphin approached the sperm whales for help in protecting itself from predators, since there aren’t many dolphin predators in the waters surrounding the Azores.

But Francis was not so quick to discount the idea. “I don’t buy that there is no predator in the lifelong experience of the whales and dolphins frequenting the Azores,” he said.

He suggested that it could be just as possible that the sperm whales accepted the dolphin for added protection against their own predators, like the killer whale(Orcinus orca), while traveling. “They see killer whales off the Azores, and while they may not be around regularly, it does not take a lot of encounters to make [other] whales defensive,” he said.”

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Discrimination:  The tendency for a behavior to occur in the presence of a certain stimuli but not in their absence.

“As trainers it is important to be very clear with our animals to prevent frustration. When giving hand signals to our animals they have to be able to discriminate between the signals. By discriminating they are then able to give the correct corresponding behavior. Each hand signal should be clear and different from the rest, thus decreasing the probability that the individual will mix up between behaviors.

Here at the aquarium our training staff utilizes a variety of hand signals with our collection. Our training staff works together to come up with new and inventive hand signals so that our collection can easily distinguish between which behaviors we are asking for. Each signal should be different but yet simple enough that every trainer is able to replicate it.

People and several species of animals have the capability to discriminate between different stimuli to produce different behaviors. This concept is not only applicable to the training world but also to everyday life. For example, you see some one smile and say hello to you. What do you do? In most cases you return the smile and greeting. What was the stimulus? The stimulus was the other person smiling and saying hello. What was the behavior given? The behavior was your return smile and greeting. People and animals are very observant creatures and its behavior is affected by different stimuli throughout everyday life.”

 

Last month CMA’s Stranding Team has responded to several stranding calls, including a distressed manatee with extensive boat-related injuries, four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that had become trapped within a small bay during low tide, and even a few sea turtles! The manatee rescue entailed a collaboration between FWC’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology laboratory and CMA’s Stranding Team. Via our combined efforts, we were able to successfully conduct a boat rescue and transport the manatee, with CMA’s stranding van, to Lowry Park Zoo for rehabilitation. Unfortunately the manatee’s health status did not progress, and therefore he passed away.

As for the trapped dolphins we responded to, fortunately they all swam back out of the bay on the evening high tide, to everyone’s relief! They even made front-page news in a local newspaper! Additionally, CMA’s Stranding Team had the amazing opportunity to assists CMA’s Sea Turtle department by responding to two live Kemp Ridley turtles that had ingested fishing hooks. Fortunately, Dr. Walsh was able to remove the fishing hook and line from one of the animals and the other animal also had the hook successfully removed upon arrival at the aquarium.

We also have named our stranding boat (drum roll please….) “Tail Force One!” Thank you to all of the Stranding Team Members for all the great names that were submitted!

We have also been continuing with our workshop series, the latest being Marine Mammal Rehabilitation! All agreed it was an interesting and insightful workshop that evoked much discussion. Attendees even got to take part in an exciting activity, carrying out morphometrics on Winter and Hope. Thanks to all of our trainers for their help with this workshop!

As always, we would like to extend a huge thank you to our dedicated and passionate Stranding Team Members for all of their hard work! We are excited to see what next month has in store!

Innovative TrainingReinforcing an animal for reaching successful approximations through a self-taught or self-experimental process.

Here at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium we work on innovative training with our dolphin population. Both Nicholas and Winter are trained for the behavior “Create.” After receiving the hand signal the dolphin must come up with a series of behaviors that are all completely different in order to receive reinforcement. The trick is for the dolphin to come up with different behaviors without repeats. For example, spin – spit – wave would be acceptable, but spin – spit – spin would not because the dolphin already did a spin. By offering the behavior “Create” to the dolphins, this behavior allows them to think for themselves and use their brains. In the wild dolphins are constantly using their brains to find food, avoid predators, and communicate with pod members. Seeing that our dolphins do not need to worry about catching food or avoiding sharks we are able to stimulate their brains through cognitive exercises like the behavior “Create.” It can also be a very exciting behavior for the dolphins because they get to do whatever behaviors they want as long as they do not repeat behaviors. Come on over to the Dolphin Terrace and the Winter Zone to see this behavior in action!