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[Jan. 20th, 2005|07:51 pm]


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The Taming of the Bottlenose Dolphin

by Jim Curtis

Few animals have been bestowed by humans with as many
'faces' as bottlenose dolphins. As mystical healers we
pray to them, as smiling entertainers we applaud them,
and as new age ambassadors we worship them. The one
thing we seem to do very little of is to accept them
for what they really are - wild animals. So when
scientific studies emerge of bottlenose dolphins
behaving in a way that we are not instantly accustomed
to, we tend to respond with shock and disbelief. But
such responses are symbolic of how naive and
idealistic we have become towards one of the most
popular species within the animal kingdom.

Most articles on bottlenose dolphins mention the
following pieces of standard information:

* they are warm-blooded, air breathing marine
mammals that inhabit temperate and tropical waters;
* they belong to the order Cetacea, the suborder
Odontoceti, the family Delphinidae and have the
species name Tursiops truncatus;
* their sleek, streamlined and powerful bodies
allow them to reach speeds of up to 35 km/h;
* they can grow to a size of approximately four
metres and a weight of 650 kilograms;
* they are cooperative hunters that feed on a
variety of fish, squid and crustaceans;
* females have a gestation period of about 12
months and are capable of having a calf every two to
three years;
* they use a process called 'echolocation' to
assist with navigation and hunting;
* they travel in social units called 'pods'; and
* they have an average life span of about 25

But descriptions of bottlenose dolphins are rarely
confined to such pure scientific data. Subjective
notions of healers, saviours, telepathic communicators
and other miraculous and mystical identities are also
regularly written about bottlenose dolphins. Instead
of being supported by empirical evidence, these
portrayals are often based more on legends, emotions
and biased personal accounts. However, despite their
questionable foundations, they have helped create a
modern day image of bottlenose dolphins that has
detracted from their simple and foremost existence as
wild animals.

This fact has rarely been more obvious to me than
during the time I worked for a tourism operation in
Australia that specialised in providing people with
the opportunity to observe and swim with wild
bottlenose dolphins in their own natural environment.
To ensure the dolphins' protection, the trips were
conducted under a very precise set of government
regulations. These regulations included conditions
such as no feeding or touching of the animals, strict
limits on approach distances and passenger numbers,
and that no dolphin swim could commence if a young
calf is present. But despite the existence of such
regulations, and our promotional material clearly
stating 'Swimming with wild bottlenose dolphins in
their own natural environment', I was amazed by some
of the inquiries we would receive from the public. For
example, people would ask how many dolphins would each
swimmer get to 'play' with in the water, and whether
they could 'ride' on the dolphins' backs just like
they had seen at a marine theme park. Another person
who had made a booking with our operation was very
disappointed when he arrived at our boat and
discovered that swimming with wild dolphins did not
involve an enclosed swimming pool. Such attitudes made
me realise how rare the idea of a wild bottlenose
dolphin has become within today's society.

Further evidence of the public's distorted view of
bottlenose dolphins emerged in 1999 with newspaper
articles entitled 'Dolphins Behaving Badly' and 'Jack
the Flipper' (as opposed to the notorious killer,
'Jack the Ripper'). These articles referred to the
findings of scientific studies carried out in both
America and Scotland that provided the first ever
evidence of infanticide within a cetacean species. The
origins of these findings began with the realisation
that bottlenose dolphins were killing other marine
mammals such as porpoises. Through a combination of
physical and observational evidence, researchers
discovered that bottlenose dolphins were responsible
for approximately 60% of harbour porpoise deaths in an
area along the north-east coast of Scotland. Dolphins
would chase the porpoises and ram their bodies with
such force that they would be thrown into the air.
This would cause a massive twisting injury within the
porpoise's body, ripping blubber and muscle from its
bones. Once the porpoise was dead, the dolphins would
immediately lose interest and swim away.

Post-mortems on the carcasses revealed the true extent
and ferocity of these attacks. Broken ribs, torn
tissue, bruised organs, punctured lungs and smashed
skulls and vertebrae were often the results of the
dolphins' brutal and fatal beatings. The motivation
for these attacks remains an unanswered question.
Theories related to food competition, sexual
frustration, simple aggression, rough play and
dolphins defending their young have all been

Unlike most wild animals that kill for food, the
dolphins did not eat the victims of their attacks, and
so their murderous urges were unrelated to the need
for food.


When similar injuries were discovered in the dead
bodies of baby bottlenose dolphins, researchers
suspected that adult dolphins were the culprits. Their
suspicions proved to be correct, with many of the
young dolphins suffering the same violent fate as
their cetacean cousins. Once again, numerous theories
have been proposed concerning the deaths. One of the
most popular is that competing adult males may be
killing the offspring of their rivals so that the dead
dolphin's mother will be receptive to mating.
Researchers believe that females remain sexually
inactive for years when raising their young, but
become active again soon after their loss. This
murderous behaviour is not an uncommon feature within
the animal kingdom. Large terrestrial carnivores, such
as bears and lions, have been known to perform similar
acts of infanticide to help start up their own
dynasties to compete with their rivals. However, such
behaviour had never been witnessed in a cetacean
species until now, and very few people would have
guessed that bottlenose dolphins would be the first
one to illustrate how evolutionary pressures in the
marine world can be quite similar to those in the
terrestrial world.

Despite the disturbing and surprising nature of these
scientific studies, it is unlikely that they will harm
the benign and popular appeal of bottlenose dolphins.
Although this appeal has been useful in generating
support for their protection, it has also contributed
to creating an image of bottlenose dolphins that
extends far beyond than just being a wild animal. It
is an image that has taken them out of the context of
their wild domain and assimilated them into a more
human one. They have been given roles as healers,
entertainers and gods for the benefit of an adoring
and needy public. But bottlenose dolphins have an
existence that is independent of human desires and
expectations, and so these studies are probably a
timely reminder that they are naturally wild animals
and not domesticated pets.

The intelligent, playful and caring qualities inherent
to many aspects of bottlenose dolphin behaviour can at
times resemble human behaviour at its best. This fact
has undoubtedly contributed to their considerable
universal appeal.

But we now know that the behaviour of bottlenose
dolphins can also resemble humans at their worse.


The one animal that we believed would always be
totally 'innocent', and trusted with our idealistic
virtues of peace and well-being, has now shown us that
it is just as capable of disturbing behaviour as
humans. Bottlenose dolphins have therefore been
bestowed with yet another 'face', but it is one that
we never expected to have in common with them.