A trio of female bottlenose dolphins swims together companionably, calf Nougat glimpsing the world above the water. A fourth little lady dolphin trails them out of the picture. The scene reminded me of the veiled clashes of little girls: We are talking about something you cannot hear (so get lost).
Have you ever had someone treat you one way when the two of you were alone but differently when others came up? Sometimes they get friendlier but sometimes they get less friendly. Sometimes they act like they do not know you or, more subtly, wish that they did not.
One cool spring day, two pairs of local lady dolphins approached each other going in opposite directions. Mother-calf pair NF and Nougat meandered south leisurely like dolphins with all the time in the world.
Then they sped up fractionally and submerged. They stayed down a long time. When they surfaced again, there were two new dolphins with them, local ladies Bet and PeeWee.
It was an unusual gathering. Only NF and her calf Nougat have strong social ties and each female was in a different stage of life. Bet is 10 years old. Six months ago, she lost her best friend Face and her daughter Ballou within two weeks of each other. She has been swimming with a succession of dolphins ever since.
Lately, she has been companionable with NF and Nougat. PeeWee is 6 years old. Seeing Bet and PeeWee together was a working example of the dolphin ability to remember other dolphins for years. Bet swam with PeeWee in the early days of the latter’s independence as an adult dolphin, which was three years ago.
Since then, PeeWee mainly swims with other teens like herself. NF is a mother dolphin at least 16 years old. Her still-dependent daughter Nougat is 4. Nougat and PeeWee are young dolphins and closest in age (4 and 6) but our records suggest that they do not know each other very well.
In any case, the four of them formed a quartet. For about three minutes.
Bet started it. She paused at the surface, sunk vertically and expelled a balloon of air from her blowhole that gurgled at the surface when it popped. Dolphins “bubble” like this for a variety of reasons, which certainly include dynamic or tense social situations. Bet followed her gurgling eruption with a couple of coughing-like vocalizations called chuffs. Chuffs mean different things, one of which signals a direction change and another of which is irritation.
Convenient for the dolphins but awkward for our observations, two yachts passed by. At the first one, the lady quartet broke rank. Nougat and PeeWee slid down the ensuing wake waves like kids at a playground. By the time the second yacht had chugged by and we could see past it into the waters to the east, dolphins were trading tailwhips.
Tailwhips are dolphin punches, thrown with the back half of the body instead of a clenched fist. Tailwhipping dolphins look like they are doing cartwheels but being tailwhipped would feel like getting hit with a 2 by 4 board.
The tailwhipping stopped abruptly and the dolphins vanished from view. We scanned wildly. Finally we saw them sprinting across in the waters to the west behind us. As sprinting dolphins do, they covered a lot of territory, mostly underwater. When the scene finally cleared, the trio of Bet, NF and Nougat swam slowly southward. PeeWee was nowhere to be seen.
Females fighting? The peaceful doves of the dolphin world fighting? It was hard to believe.
There are several reasons why. Primarily, we rarely see females fight. I once watched a desperate clash between Bet and her fair weather friend Stick, maybe over young male Key. I vividly recall how they scuffled roughly in those cold winter waters.
Afterwards, Stick and Key swam away as Bet lay on water surface for a long time and then slowly swam in the opposite direction. We did not see Bet and Stick swimming together for the next year. But that was once in thousands of observations.
Two, females rarely bear the marks of conflict on their bodies. Conflict inevitably leaves marks. Dolphin skin is delicate and easy to scratch. It is soft by virtue of constant exposure to water. It is richly networked with blood vessels. Fighting dolphins grab each other with their mouths and leave tell-tale toothrakes. Females hardly ever have toothrakes compared to males and jousting kids.
Three, females have subtle dorsal fin marks. Dorsal fin marks are the nicks and notches that form patterns that dolphin behaviorists use to tell dolphins apart. Granted, we know little about how dolphins get those marks. But conflict has to play a role. To the extent that it does, females do not have many conflicts.
Finally PeeWee appeared like a dot in the distance, trailing the trio femme fatale.
The trio in turn rhythmically navigated the watery crests and troughs from passing boats for many minutes. Just as I picked up my computer to note that PeeWee may have been aggressively ousted by the other females, she appeared in their midst. We put the boat in neutral and watched the four of them swam past together, heading south side by side.
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.