Three generations of local bottlenose dolphins converge to peer out of the water, ever open to new social opportunities.
People and dolphins share a strong social nature. Both species prefer company to solitude. Both have a large brain to keep a large number of others of their kind, called conspecifics, in mind.
Thereís a term that neatly summarizes this behavior but doesnít mean anything when you first meet it. The term is fission-fusion. Fission means separating. Fusion means joining.
At sea, fission-fusion means a dolphin has a big circle of friends and acquaintances. (To those who donít believe animals are capable of friendship, my apologies.) This big circle gives them a dizzying number of social options, something like your social life in high school.
Bottlenose dolphin life is like being part of a giant extended family. With dozens of potential schoolmates to choose from, a dolphin never has to be alone, and rarely is.
In addition, dolphins travel a lot. This increases their chances of running into many different schoolmates with whom to pass a little time.
The upshot is that dolphin groups form and fade in endless combinations of different dolphins. It is this endless forming and fading of social groups that is summed up as fission-fusion.
Fission-fusion combinations arenít really endless. But there are enough of them to keep the biologist on her toes. There are also the times when dolphins display fission-fusion behavior to the extreme.
One lovely day in May provided a particularly zestful example of fission-fusion behavior at its extreme. Without sinking you in the specifics, in just five hours we saw 25 dolphins 56 times in 18 different combinations!
Briefly, we saw 5 sets of bulls 2-5 times each. We saw 6 mother-calf pairs 1-6 times each. There were three more local ladies and two teens in the mix. With little obvious drama, they meandered around the study area in different combinations that took over 1200 pictures to document. And I wondered why I was tired when I finished figuring all this out.
I thought you might like to know the meaning of a fission-fusion social organization, because you live in one too. Remember high school?
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.dolphinsuperstore.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.