Dolphins remember members of the group who help and those who don’t

STUDY – NEWS – COMMENT – ANALYSIS: Researchers say that male dolphins can hold a grudge because they can remember those dolphins who are likely to help them when they need help and those that don’t. In classify other dolphins in this way they decide not to help these ‘unhelpful individuals’ if there comes a time in the future when they need help. It is another example of the intelligence and social behaviour of dolphins. I’m not sure that it is about holding a grudge, however. It appears to be more about knowing the quality of personality of members of a group and knowing who they can rely on when they need help. This is quite an important part of a social structure.

Bottlenose dolphins can hold grudges against individuals who fail to assist when needed

Bottlenose dolphins can hold grudges against individuals who fail to assist when needed. Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay .

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The researchers from Bristol University studied this complex “alliance network” of dolphins. Dolphins employ the concept of team membership because they hunt and defend themselves together. The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

They studied bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia. They found that individuals responded positively and strongly to calls from dolphins who had come to their aid in the past. They called these dolphins “allies”. However, they tended to ignore the calls of individual dolphins that they had not classified as allies i.e. those who had not helped them in the past.

Dolphins work as a team to hunt and protect themselves from predators. It seems to me that if an individual dolphin fails to help another at a time of need then that would indicate that they are not a good team member. I would argue, therefore, that another dolphin would classify that individual as a poor team member. This is less to do with emotion and holding a grudge and more to do with creating an efficient and effective team. It is quite businesslike and proficient, which it has to be in order to maximise survival.

Dr. Stephanie King is the lead scientist on this project, as I understand it, and she said: “Social animals can possess sophisticated ways of classifying relationships with members of the same species. In our own society, we use social knowledge to classify individuals into meaningful groups, like sports teams and political allies. Bottlenose dolphins form the most complex alliances outside humans, and we wanted to know how they classify these relationships.”

Their sophisticated behaviour extended to cooperating with individuals who had not necessarily helped them directly but had helped dolphins that they knew. In knowing this they were able to gauge whether an individual dolphin was of the mindset to assist dolphins in need. This is my interpretation. It sounds very much like human behaviour.