Collaboration is what defines our society: people are known for their strategy, alliances, a deliberate sense of collaboration that helps us to function socially and culturally. But this complex social system is not unique to us. Dolphins, who otherwise have quite the reputation in marine circles for their curiosity and endearing personalities, are also incredibly social. Male dolphins make lifelong (ten years in their case) friendships with others. These cliques of slender animals help each other mate with female dolphins and even ward off enemies trying to “steal” potential mates.
These are actually “alliances of alliances of alliances,” said Richard Connor, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Connor, along with other researchers, studied 202 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins found in Western Australia’s Shark Bay between September and November, the dolphin’s peak season. Over a period of five years, the researchers observed the dolphins’ social habits, watching and listening to their whistles that function as unique communication patterns. After that, they focused solely on male dolphins and how their social circles work: how alliances are formed, how long they last, what purpose they serve.
The researchers published their findings in PNAS on Monday. What they observed was a social bond that had never been confirmed in non-human animals before: Male dolphins relied on alliances with two or three other male dolphins – this can also be as many as 14 – for breeding and protection reasons. These unspoken but understood alliances are long lasting, stable and crucial to their longevity in the waters.
“It’s a significant investment that starts when they’re very young — and these relationships can last a lifetime,” said Stephanie King, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Bristol and one of the authors of the study. King explained that these men clearly have loyalty.
“What happens when a man, you could be in a threesome herding a woman. And when someone comes to get that woman, the other men on your team and your second-order alliance come in to help you.” The researchers found that the dolphins were connected to as many as 22 other dolphins (as many as 50 in some cases), a network that will come as a larger team to help if they sense any risk to their safety or breeding capacity.
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These are fascinating patterns of sociability within the male dolphin network. All the more so because until now the idea of cooperation and social alliances as a necessity for survival was thought to be unique to humans. Our motives, mechanisms and even desires are rich and complex. But what the new research shows is that “dolphins and humans have come together in the evolution of alliances between groups — an incredibly complex social system. And it’s amazing because we’re so different from dolphins,” Connor noted.
Social structures among dolphins bear an uncanny resemblance to human counterparts because of their anatomy. There is something called the “social brain” hypothesis – a theory that assumes that human brains evolved to process factual information about the world and manage large social systems. According to the hypothesis, even the current trait of having complex social relationships on multiple levels is reserved only for mammals with large brain sizes.
And just like people, collaboration also comes with competition at different levels. Unrelated male dolphins were found to form three levels of alliance — known as “orders” — as they competed for female dolphins to mate. There were alliances within the same friendship group (called first and second order) and between group alliances (third order), “based on cooperation between two or more second order alliances against other groups,” the study noted. “Individual men can expand their strategic options by maintaining social exposure with men outside their alliance network at three levels, potentially leading to the formation of new alliance relationships. Thus, each man navigates an alliance network on multiple levels of highly differentiated social relationships.
And arguably, this social bond between male dolphin networks is critical to their breeding function and eventual survival of the species. The closer, stronger the group, the more successful they are at attracting females. Even male dolphins that are more socially connected to third-order allies had more success “accompanied by females.”
These dolphin communities are built around ideas of friendship, cooperation and kinship – a network that is socially continuous. By tracing their patterns, we can also understand how people have developed socially and cognitively.
That humans and dolphins are the two animals with the largest brains compared to their body size is “no coincidence,” Connor said.