In the mid-1960s, one of the more popular sitcoms on American TV was “Flipper,” named for the bottlenose dolphin who was the star of the show. Long before the public became aware of the many human-like characteristics of dolphins, Flipper was portrayed as a friend of the three male characters, a park warden and his teen sons, and was a pretty intelligent local resident – protecting both humans and wildlife from various criminals and danger. Flipper was shown to communicate with humans via noises, head nods and head shakes. While the handsome father was widowed and the cute sons were dating age, there was rarely an episode involving women or romance. Hod “Flipper” been made today, that would certainly be different – but not just because of the differences in social norms between then and now. A new study found that male bottlenose dolphins form alliances with other male bottlenose dolphins in order to help each other find suitable mates in areas where the competition is fierce and the females are limited. In other words, they act as ‘wingmen’ for their buddies – or would that be ‘wing-dolphins’? In any case, that kind of behavior today would probably move “Flipper” to a cable network.
“Cooperation between allied individuals is ubiquitous in human societies. Our capacity to build strategic cooperative relationships across multiple social levels, such as trade or military alliances both nationally and internationally, is thought to be unique to our species.”
There are a number of widely accepted similar personality traits between humans and dolphins – both are open (curious and playful), conscientiousness (reliable and self-controlled), extraverted (outgoing, and sociable), agreeable (affectionate, and helpful), and neurotic (anxious and erratic). However, the ability to form strategic relationships across multiple social levels hasn’t been observed in any other species, including dolphins. Dr. Stephanie King, associate professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, explains in a press release the findings of the research she co-authored in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Her team from the University of Bristol, University of Zurich and University of Massachusetts studied 121 adult male Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) at Shark Bay in Western Australia during their peak mating season from September to November. Their behavior was an eye-opener.
“This analysis reveals the largest nonhuman alliance network known, with highly differentiated relationships among individuals.”
King points out that not even chimpanzees, the most social of the non-human primates, form alliance networks like these dolphins did. Under the team’s observation, the non-related male dolphins formed “first-order alliances of two-three males to cooperatively pursue consortships with individual females.” In human terms, the dolphins resembled best friends at a bar or a dance . They worked together to find one a suitable female, then protected him by keeping other males away from the female during his courtship. If the trip became outnumbered, a new human-like dynamic came into play. The tightly bonded threesome called in a loosely organized group of up to 14 dolphins to act as a gang providing more protecting and as a posse to pull in more females. King says the dolphins knew exactly which other males were team members and which were rivals. In fact, they even formed a third order alliance if required. Whatever the number of members and levels is needed, the system works.
“Not only have we shown that male bottlenose dolphins form the largest known multilevel alliance network outside humans, but that cooperative relationships between groups, rather than simply alliance size, allows males to spend more time with females, thereby increasing their reproductive success.”
Yes, it sounds misogynistic when it is human males executing these ‘wingman’ maneuvers at a bar or a party, but this is actually an effective survival mechanism necessary for the reproductive success of bottlenose dolphins. While human males learn this technique from movies, television, older brothers and friends, how did these ‘Flippers’ begin to form these cooperative alliances? The answer lies in another characteristic shared only by humans and dolphins.
“With humans, but not chimpanzees, Shark Bay dolphins share two characteristics: extremely large brains that are three times larger than similar-sized relatives and the formation of strategic, multilevel male alliances.”
The Shark Bay dolphins figured this alliance formation out for themselves using brains that are much larger than other members of their species. The study calls this the “social brain” hypothesis for the evolution of large brains and intelligence which holds that “complex social relationships were the key driver in the evolution of large brains and intelligence.” Large brains in humans and dolphins led to complex social relationships based on coalitions and alliances within social groups made up of non-relatives – a clear show of trust, but also a looser relationship that allows individual dolphins to change groups without offending a relative. Also, a large brain is needed to keep track of the members and relationships in the multiple alliance levels they formed, as “decisions at one level may impact success at another level.”
“Multilevel strategic alliances are a prominent feature of human societies; thus, the discovery of strategic, multilevel male alliances in dolphins is a surprising case of convergence that broadens our understanding of human social and cognitive evolution.”
Dr. King and her team are focusing next on how this shared ability of humans and dolphins to form alliances will help to better understand how humans form multi-leveled social groups and relationships – an understanding that is key in this world dominated by social media as the new bar or party for forming relationships. Can multi-level alliances be formed in social media groupings? That remains to be seen. If they can, will they be beneficial or harmful? As with so many facets of social media – who knows? If it is beneficial, will it help humans evolve to a new level of social groupings? Let’s hope so.
Getting back to Flipper – did the writers of the show miss a key way for the characters, including the main one, to grow and form relationships by not letting Flipper act as a ‘wing-dolphin’ for the males as they met females on the beach or at swim parties? Or would Flipper realize he’s the superior male and go off to form alliances with other dolphins?
Are we on the road to becoming Planet of the Dolphins?