Dolphin Alliance Project

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The ‘alliances of alliances’ of bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay are the most complex known outside of our own species. Most scientists subscribe to the view that complex social relationships, like those in coalitions and alliances, were the driving force behind the evolution of large brains and high intelligence. When we started watching the dolphins in Shark Bay in 1982, we knew that they had the largest brains for their body size after humans, but we knew nothing about their society and had no idea why they needed all that brain-power.

Dolphin Snagging trio
The greatest breakthough came on the 19th of August, 1987. We had previously discovered that adult male dolphins swam around in pairs and trios – often in precise synchrony – cooperating to ‘herd’ single females that were ready to conceive. On that glassy calm day, we first saw two such ‘friendly’ alliances cooperate to attack another group to take their female. We instantly knew the incredible significance of that discovery: the male dolphins’ ‘social network’ featured alliances within alliances, just like humans and unlike any other animal. Prof. Connor, then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, exclaimed on the radio to fellow researchers ‘this is just like science fiction’, a moment immortalized when the video was included in the NOVA documentary, The private lives of dolphins.

The discoveries have kept coming. In the 1990s, we discovered the 14 member ‘super-alliance’, whose males played the equivalent of musical chairs when forming trios to herd females. Dr. Krützen led genetic analyses indicating that the really stable pairs and trios (some lasted for 20 years!) were often relatives, but males in the ‘super-alliance’ were not. We found that allied males had not only converged with humans in the formation of multi-level alliances, but also in the use of synchrony to mediate those alliance relationships and impress female consorts.

Dolphin BB flank female
The 2000s saw the discovery of a remarkable third level of male alliance formation!
We are now examining how juvenile males form alliances, how varying ecology around the bay impacts the males’ alliance tactics and, using combined side- and overhead-video (from a ‘kite-balloon’), the fine details of male social interactions, such as who initiates petting sessions and group direction changes. We are using the latest genetic techniques to refine our examination of relatedness among allies and which males father the most offspring.

The longer we observe, the richer our observations become. A few years ago we watched the older male Real Notch join a much younger male alliance. We understood the significance of that only because we had been watching Real Notch for 30 years, as he ruled the dolphin politics in the waters off Monkey Mia through the 1980s and 1990s, until all his alliance partners had disappeared by 2006. His ability to move to a new group, something we have seen only a few other times, is the kind of observation that is rare, but so critical in shaping our understanding of how strategic and flexible male alliance behaviour can be. It is the kind of observation that can only be made in a long-term study.

Our discoveries have been published in the top scientific journals, including Nature, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The Proceedings B of the Royal Society of London and Biology Letters. We have been invited to speak about our dolphin alliance research at conferences and universities in the US, Australia, England, Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Canada and to audiences in diverse academic fields including Biology, Psychology, Anthropology and even Political Science! Our work has been featured on prominent television documentaries including NOVA and The National Geographic Society, in print (e.g. The New York Times) and online (Science online).

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