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Dolphin Watch
When am I going to learn?
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Four-year-old Cutlass and his mom Courtney demonstrate a typical maternal discipline behavior called the rostral ram-aerial avoid. The errant calf leaps to dodge a collision with his mom. The rostral ram-aerial avoid ranges from symbolic, as here, to deadly serious.
When am I going to learn? How many times do I need to see something to learn that it is real, I should believe it and even depend on it?

For example, in our hyper-capitalized society, how much proof do I need to concede that the initial quoted price is not real? The storefront advertises two pair of glasses for $100. But did I want lenses with those new frames? The utilities or cable company rep reassures me that the quoted monthly fee is the true fee. But to get the service, I will also need to pay the swollen list of additional fees. When am I going to learn that there is usually more to it?

I have similar questions about dolphin intelligence and their friendliness to man.

If a dolphin does the same thing to our research boat on two consecutive surveys, is there more to it than habit? Is the second-time-around behavior the dolphin way to say, “I remember what we did before. That was fun! Let’s do it again?”

That certainly could be true of humans. So I have to keep in mind that that explanation could be attributing human traits to an animal unfairly, the offense of anthropomorphism.

The goal of the science of animal behavior (ethology) is seeing animals clearly for what they are. That can be difficult. For example, when a dolphin runs through a series of previous behaviors as if on fast-forward, is it ever acknowledging the previous encounter?

It was one of those wonderful winter days that reassures us that spring is close. It was clear, calm, beautifully blue, and like San Diego, not warm but not cold. We encountered several pairs of dolphins in short order. En route with the second pair, we spied a third pair going in the other direction. Like cars in opposing lanes on the interstate, the two pairs did not stop and visit.

Data done on the second pair, we headed over to the third pair. The smaller of the two, 4-year-old Cutlass, headed over to us as well. He was in a distractible mood. Such dolphins are not engrossed in some on-going activity and are easily attracted to anything going on around them, like nearby boats.

Cutlass came over and exhibited a remarkable and engaging set of behaviors, the kind humans love. He got more and more excited, or rather his behaviors become more animated.

First, he came up behind the boat and tossed something into the air a couple of times. Distractible dolphins toss all kinds of things (seedpods, small eels, fish, small rays, shells, etc.). However, I did not see any object and the photos revealed only water. Usually, only baby dolphins toss water. Cutlass is long past babyhood.

Then he came to the front of the boat and wove under the bow. When we failed to accelerate so he could surf, he returned to the back of the boat and started rolling around.

Suddenly he startled and his flukes flipped into the air for a second. Something had goosed him pretty hard. He shot forward underwater and then leapt free of it in a graceful U-turn called a bow.

He returned to rolling around at the back of boat but startled again. Then, in short order, he shot into another graceful bow. But this time it was with his mother, Courtney snapping at his belly.

When Cutlass first came over, his mom Courtney had continued swimming towards John’s Pass and the Gulf, their ultimate destination. But she came back and registered her objection to his dawdling by goosing him. That was evidently insufficient to distract him from his tomfoolery at the boat. So she goosed him a second time and finally threatened to T-bone him. Didn’t he know that he was supposed to be traveling rhythmically at her side? They had places to go!

Cutlass did two more graceful bows (defiantly?), then joined his mother and traveled rhythmically at her side out into the Gulf.

Cutlass’ engaging behavior was not only notable for its dolphin mystique of being friendly towards people. It was also notable as a skillful reference to previous behavior, intentional or not. This was February; we had not seen this pair since October (four months before).

I remember that October day well because it was the first time Cutlass engaged our boat clearly and extensively as a mature calf ready to wean instead of a dear but indiscriminate calf (who, like a puppy, loves everybody).

His behavior that October day was wonderful to watch. It included object tossing, inspecting the boat, aerial behaviors and gentle play with other youngsters. Consequently, on this fantastic February day, social play was the only missing behavior. I have to wonder if Cutlass remembers that October day too and went so far as to act out his recollections by repeating the highlights of that day.

The man who ruptured the wall between humans and other animals, Charles Darwin, thought that the ability to recognize an individual after a considerable passage of time showed the rudiments of a mind. I see way more than basic intelligence in the friendliness of our local bottlenose dolphins, albeit with due caution.

However, there is definitely just a bare bones connection between my opening reference to the deceitful prices of our hyper-capitalized society and dolphin psychology: When am I going to learn?

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at or visit her website www.g­oodna­tured­stati­stics­.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.
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