The dolphins that lend a helping flipper

Interactions between humans and animals can happen on many levels, but it is rare for the human to feel to be the less intelligent half of the relationship. Yet, when humans and dolphins meet, this can often seem to be the case. Generally, humans feel to be the master race, in control and superior to other animals. However, our encounters with dolphins can often demonstrate how they may operate on a level more similar to ours than we realise.

 The Common Dolphin. Photo Credit: NOAA NMFS via Wikimedia Commons

The Common Dolphin.
Photo Credit: NOAA NMFS via Wikimedia Commons

Some pods of wild dolphins have very interesting interactions with small fishing villages, especially in Brazil. Each morning the fishermen lay out their nets ready for the fish and each morning the local dolphin pod arrives and proceeds to herd fish towards the fishermen. If this behaviour wasn’t unusual enough, the dolphins have even begun signalling to the fishermen to tell them when to throw their nets using a system of fin slaps against the surface of the water. This coordination ensures the fishermen have full nets after a very short time.

This behaviour wasn’t trained or instructed by mankind; it is completely natural. But what do the dolphins gain? This is where it becomes a little less clear. Some speculate that they benefit by having an easy time of catching the fish that are trying to escape, but this isn’t known for sure.

 Painting of dolphins from the Bronze Age in Crete.  Photo Credit: H-stt via Wikipedia

Painting of dolphins from the Bronze Age in Crete.
Photo Credit: H-stt via Wikipedia

All that is known is that this strange working relationship is a natural occurrence that will continue on. The fishermen will teach their sons to watch for the dolphins’ signals, and the dolphins will teach their calves to herd the fish.

When humans enter the sea we are, in a sense, invading the dolphins’ home. Yet, even when we place ourselves outside of our natural habitat and get into difficulty, instead of ignoring us or despising us for intruding on their world dolphins are well known for lending a flipper. Stories can be traced back to Ancient Greek legends of dolphins rescuing sailors. This isn’t just a myth though – more recent stories of dolphins staying with lost divers can be found from all around the world.

Here is an instance where the dolphins aren’t just interacting with humans freely but where they are also going out of their way to help us when we’re in distress. They have been witnessed attacking sharks that are threatening people in the water. But, again, why? Why are dolphins choosing to do this? They could be the first animal that has ever shown true altruism (besides humans).

Photo Credit: Claudia14 via Pixabay. Image used under Creative Commons Deed CC0

Photo Credit: Claudia14 via Pixabay. Image used under Creative Commons Deed CC0

The dolphins could drive fish into nets to gain an easy meal, but protecting humans doesn’t show a clear benefit for them. All other animals allow the ecosystem to flow as normal and will not interfere with its course. In these two examples, however, the dolphins have chosen not just to intervene but to intervene to help one species at the expense of another. They drive fish to their deaths so that we may catch them. They stop the sharks from having an easy meal to save the lives of humans.

We speculate about the degree of intelligence dolphins possess and it is well recognised that they are intelligent creatures; so perhaps they are intelligent enough to understand us better than we think. Perhaps, similarly to humans, there are both good and bad dolphins. We hear of dolphins rescuing people only from those that were rescued; we don’t hear about the people that drown because a pod of dolphins ignored them. Some speculate that they are acting more from choice rather than instinct, which would mean they have a higher level of awareness than we first realised.

Unless we can decipher the dolphins’ communication techniques, something we have been trying to do since the 1960’s, we may never know why these magnificent beings occasionally go out of their way to help us.

This post, by author Jennifer Rasal, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.


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