Certain bottlenose dolphins in Laguna, southern Brazil, have apparently taught themselves to work as a team with artisanal fishermen, creating a win-win for both the marine mammals and humans.
A study on the dolphins, published in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters, has found that the most helpful ones also turn out to be particularly cooperative and social with each other, perhaps explaining why some wild dolphins decide of their own free will to work with humans, while others do not.
"Through highly synchronized behavior with humans, cooperative dolphins in Laguna drive mullet schools towards a line of fishermen and 'signal,' via stereotyped head slaps or tail slaps, when and where fishermen should throw their nets," wrote lead author Fabio Daura-Jorge of the Federal University of Santa Catarina.with colleagues.
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The effort is not entirely charitable on the part of the dolphins. Fish that escape the nets often swim right into the mouths of the dolphins, which have learned to wait for that fulfilling moment.
Daura-Jorge and his team conducted boat surveys over a two-year period, collecting photo identification data and other information on the dolphins. Any that teamed up with humans for fishing was classified as "cooperative." The others were classified as "non-cooperative."
The researchers next used computer modeling to identify social relationships among the dolphins. "Cooperative" dolphins turned out to spend more time together, even when not assisting humans. They appeared to have their own social network within the larger local population of bottlenose dolphins.
The scientists suspect that "ecology, genetics and social learning" could be driving and maintaining the wild dolphin subset's unique relationship with humans. Interestingly, the phenomenon seems to mirror how the Brazilian fishermen learn their trade.
"The human side of this dolphin-fishermen interaction is maintained through inter-generational information transfer, that is, teaching by elders, and it is likely that a similar process is used to transmit complex behavioral traits between generations of dolphins, as found in other localized behaviors, such as 'sponging' in Shark Bay, Western Australia," they wrote.