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Natural history of the present

Dolphin sexual politics gets the tabloid treatment

My UNSW colleague Bill Sherwin just sent me a cautionary email. He’s part of an international team that studies the bottlenose dolphins of Shark Bay, Western Australia. Over the years their research has changed many people’s minds about dolphins - usually for the worse.

Dolphins live a life of constant drama, according to Professor Richard Connor. Morton S Wildlife Photography

Some of their earliest studies showed that (1st order) alliances of two or three males work to cut females off from the pod in order to mate with them - often forcibly. Bigger (2nd order) alliances of 4 to 14 males cooperate to attack other males or alliances, and defend against similar attacks. And some 2nd order alliances band together in bigger “super-alliances” in conflicts over access to females.

Yesterday, they published their latest findings in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Their main message: dolphin social life can be really really complex. Bottlenose dolphin societies are “open”, meaning there aren’t rigidly defined boundaries.

It’s the kind of paper that builds the foundations of science, but that doesn’t translate easily into soundbites or headlines. But dolphins are smart and sleek, and folks love a story about Flipper and his little mates.

So the paper made a big splash.

It didn’t hurt that there was a line in the paper’s introduction that bottlenosed dolphin societies are characterised by “bisexual philopatry”.

The headlines said it all:


Some of the stories actually attended to the main message of the paper. But the main message seems to have stuck on two points: the long-known propensity of first-order male dolphin alliances to coerce females into mating (or, in headline speak, “gang rape”), and the phrase “bisexual philopatry”.

As Bill tells me in his email, “bisexual philopatry”, … when translated out of jargon means “males stay near where they were born, AND females stay near where they were born” – nothing more or less than that.

While Discovery News posted an excellent report on the study and what made it genuinely interesting, some news outlets seem to have inferred a similarity between “open societies” and “open relationships”.

“I work on the male dolphins and their social lives are very intense; it seems there is constant drama,” the Discovery News story quotes the corresponding author, Richard Connor as saying.

“I have often thought, as I watched their complicated alliance relationships, that their social lives would be mentally and physically exhausting, and I’m glad I’m not a dolphin,” he said.

I can only imagine that dolphins are better off not knowing about their tabloid celebrity status and the things humans are saying behind their backs.

Comments and tweets (@Brooks_Rob) welcome.

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