Dolphins have many different ways of communicating, including direct and indirect body language. Here Pepto shoves N directly.
Did you know that you’re surrounded by invisible walls? Those walls are your place in the pecking order.
A pecking order is a structure that organizes social interaction between individuals based on their ranks. The term pecking order is literal. It refers to the militaristic order in which hens peck each other. The untouchable top-ranking hen pecks all; the bottom-ranking hen is literally hen-pecked by all of the other hens and pecks no one herself; and in between those two is a strict series of middle-ranking hens, each located at her own rung on a social ladder that rigidly dictates who-pecks-whom.
You probably learned about the pecking order at home as a child. In many families, dad held top rank, mom ranked under dad, and the kids’ ranks were the same as their birth order. The frustrating exception was the “baby of the family,” who was often granted unfair dispensation from the rules of relative rank. Spoiled children, who are top ranking, are another exception.
You probably refined your understanding of the pecking order when you grew up and went to work, compliments of your first boss. You probably also learned that there can be several pecking orders in operation at once. At work, for example, there’s the formal corporate hierarchy “on paper” and at least one other, which is often based on personal power and explains why the boss isn’t necessarily the true leader.
Navigating all those pecking orders can be complicated, but your big beautiful brain is designed to handle them, for humans and hierarchies go together.
Actually, all kinds of animals - from baboons to bison to birds – organize themselves according to social ranks from top dominant to lowest subordinate, so the formal term for a pecking order is a dominance hierarchy.
Dolphins also have dominance hierarchies, which is easiest to see among captive dolphins. Their hierarchy is most obvious to the keeper bringing over a bucket of breakfast fish because the feeding hierarchy makes it hard to ensure that low-ranking dolphins get their fair share of food.
Because dolphins form dominance hierarchies in captivity, we assume that free-ranging dolphins form them as well. But hierarchies are hard to see at sea because most dolphins change social companions with dizzying regularity. Moreover, a dolphin’s personal rank may be relative and change according to who is in the group that day. On rare occasions, though, dolphin dominance is unapologetically obvious.
Late this spring, a mom dolphin we call Keyhole Notch returned to John’s Pass with her older calf Kelly to have her new baby, as is her habit (Dolphin Watch’s Time for the girls of the Gulf). Soon after giving birth, she was harassed by probable bulls Hoffman and buddy (Dolphin Watch’s The dolphin dance of shadow and light). The harassment didn’t necessarily mean Keyhole Notch is low ranking because two big bulls can dominate a smaller single mom regardless of social rank. But a nearby female did nothing to help her.
In mid-August, we came upon a chaotic assembly of socializing dolphins. The boisterous quartet of teens Doodle, Babyface, Plunder, and Nougat were doing what teens do best. With full body contact they erupted in riotous fountains of exchange, leapt over each other, vanished into the bubbly brine and surfaced some distance from their vanishing point, wiggling ever onward. Several mom dolphins loitered nearby with NF occasionally rushing in to poke a squirming body to encourage her daughter Nougat to quit her tomfoolery. They kept my camera clicking!
By and by, Keyhole Notch approached with her month-old newborn and three-year-old calf Kelly, trailed by a pair of rugged dorsal fins belonging to dolphin bulls Ilex and Taxus. These bulls visit our local waters occasionally, and had been the first dolphins we’d seen on the survey that morning as they streaked by like comets on some vital dolphin mission. The presence of big bulls usually inhibits teens (guess who out-ranks who!) and they accordingly melted away. But the waters didn’t quiet. Yet.
NF zoomed over to Keyhole Notch and briefly absconded with her tiny month-old baby for a couple of flourishing surfaces. A dolphin mom typically has “top rank” over her baby, so NF’s unusual behavior suggested that she out-ranked Keyhole Notch. Nonetheless, NF let the new mom retrieve her newborn without ado.
Then even more unusual behavior suggested that Keyhole Notch might be a hen-pecked dolphin. Emerging from the dorsal fins that flashed everywhere like fireflies, big bull Taxus suddenly dashed in and absconded with Keyhole Notch’s tiny newborn.
He zipped around at great speed, which kept the newborn helplessly at his side. Instead of chasing him down to zoom in and retrieve the newborn, mom Keyhole Notch milled around dozens of yards away from the would-be kidnapper and her baby, as did the calf’s older sibling Kelly. Both mom and sibling seemed powerless to retrieve the newborn, as if blocked by some invisible wall.
Taxus dodged and swirled with the newborn for several dramatic minutes while the defenseless mom and sibling kept their distant vigil. Finally, during a breather in which Taxus paused briefly, the newborn streaked back to its mom like a comet.
Taxus melted away. Keyhole Notch and Kelly flanked the newborn tightly and headed west, but strangely, not at speed. Stillness took over.
Once a dominance hierarchy is established, it is maintained by subtle reminders of relative rank. Father only had to give you THAT look. The dominant elephant has merely to flick her enormous ears to subdue her subordinates. That morning’s chaotic behavior may have been the dolphin way of maintaining the pecking order, which exists even if dolphins don’t have beaks.
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at email@example.com or visit her website www.dolphinsuperstore.com. Read her award-winning Dolphin Watch column weekly at www.TBNweekly.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.