At the moment, we know of only one animal, other than the human-animal, which has the ability to form cross-group alliances to boost their reproductive success and that animal is the dolphin. Dolphins off the coast of Western Australia have demonstrated that humans are not the only species to cooperate in groups. It was thought that this ability was the hallmark of being human but apparently not.
The lead scientist in this study, Prof Stephanie King from the University of Bristol, UK, said:
“We show evidence of between-group cooperation. It’s the only example we’ve seen so far outside humans. That’s the big finding, that’s really striking”.
King said that although chimpanzees form groups the relationship between the groups is “defined by conflict”. Strikingly, dolphins appear to have learnt that it helps if groups cooperate with other groups to achieve a shared goal. This might be to protect females from other rivals for example.
The study found that when they observed 121 adult males, a male dolphin’s alliances with other groups helped him to do better with females.
And it is believed that dolphins are able to do this because: “It’s probably not a coincidence that, after humans, dolphins have the biggest brains relative to body size among mammals,” according to Prof Richard Connor, co-author of the study and who is based at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
He said that, “they are negotiating incredibly complex social relationships.”
It seems that scientists have been blind to the ability of cetaceans to employ these complex strategies. It’s been suggested that this is because scientists spend too much time studying our monkey relatives.
More productive studies on animal behaviour can take place if species like dolphins are examined because they exhibit amazingly human behaviours but they are very different mammals to humans.
The scientists are going to do further work to examine questions about how dolphins manage these complex relationships. Connor said: “I co-started this project four years ago and I’m at least as excited now as I was then. We’ve just scratched the surface”.
P.S. cetaceans: an entirely aquatic order of mammals comprising the whales, the dolphins, and the porpoises.
Below are some more articles on dolphins.