When local bull Lax zooms up behind DD1, she flicks him in the face with her flukes and shoots out of the water, the gesture she uses to register her disinterest in proffered male attentions.
It worked! When Dolphin Watch recently suggested that the 2013 dolphin baby season ended on a high note, it was partly facetious because there is no formal dolphin birth season.
Bottlenose dolphins can give birth any time of year though summer is typical. It was also partly a bid for evidence that the baby season had not ended. Until this month, our latest birth was when Face had Babyface by Sept. 3 back in 2006.
So, it worked! Two more dolphins have been born and we have a new record. Our favorite flirt Q had a baby by Sept. 2. J set a new record by having a baby by Sept. 13.
Moreover, Capt. John Heidemann and I had the good fortune to encounter a dolphin nursery group out for a stroll, a charming observation that started bizarrely. We were cruising past a little islet when local bull Lax zipped across our bow. Naturally, we whooshed into neutral. After some time, we glimpsed him far ahead. Then he was gone again.
Scanning the waters for him revealed the nursery group: Stick and her three-week-old baby, Q and her two-week-old baby, bonded bulls BB and DD2, and local lady DD1.
They drew together into a tightly-knit group that appeared to swim without tensions. One time, bulls BB and DD2 surfaced with Stick's little baby between them, their adult bulk accentuating its diminutive dimensions. Another time, Q’s tiny shiny newborn squirted to the surface closely flanked by Q and BB, who pet each other gently with their pectoral fins as they slid by. DD1 swam smoothly with Stick and her newborn.
The bulls left a short time later. The tender troupe meandered as before but now the moms let the two tiny calves swim a little further from them. Periodically, a miniature dolphin zoomed forward a meter or two, making its mom dash after it. Soon the scene resembled herding cats.
Q is a more experienced mother than Stick and was better at staying next to her tiny newborn. Though Stick was attentive to her baby (her second), she let it swim further away more often and made it follow her more than following it.
Less than a month old, the quicksilver newborns were too young to play together but, probably accidentally, once zoomed forward side by side. Similarly gawky in the graces of swimming like a dolphin, they ended their modest sprint with a double darting breath-chin smash submergence!
Interestingly, the lone bull Lax returned after bulls BB and DD2 left. He made a variety of ultimately fruitless overtures. Capt. Heidemann and I know that Lax can be a thug with newborns; perhaps the dolphin moms know it too – because here is what happened next.
First, Lax zoomed over to Q’s grown calf Qball first, who had been swimming peripherally to the tender troupe all this time. Newly-replaced by the newborn, Qball appeared to be socially disinclined.
Then Lax zoomed up behind DD1. She kicked him in the face with her flukes and shot out of the water, a gesture she uses to register her disinterest in proffered male attentions.
While Lax was parading around thusly, Q began doing something you do not see very often: She carried her calf.
Now, many mammal moms carry their infants everywhere. Ape and monkey infants cling to their mother’s back like little jockeys, to their mother’s stomach like little sloths, or a combination of both. Hoofed animals like hippos, which are dolphins’ closest relatives, do not carry their young. The young must be precocial enough at birth to manage their own transportation.
Mothers of dead, dying, or injured dolphin calves may attempt to carry them across their dorsum (between the head and dorsal fin), though their awkwardness reveals the rarity of carrying behavior. Our local calf Vidalia often clambered onto his mom Valiant’s back when he was entangled in fishing line and did so occasionally for months after his release from it.
Consequently, it is the exceptional dolphin mother that carries her healthy newborn at sea. Q’s behavior raised the question of whether Lax represented a threat. We only saw Q carrying newborn Qball in the presence of several bulls. Yet that day, Q carried her newborn several times when Lax was around.
The newborn would surface, Q would surface and the calf rolled onto her dorsum and rode there briefly. That day was not the first time Q did this, and behavior had an impressively practiced look. This is one way dolphins show good mothering skills.
It was timely too, because then Lax approached Q and curled on his side next to her, which is a dolphin invitation. Q curled around her calf protectively but Lax persisted. So Q used the tactic that harassed dolphin mothers use to escape hooligans: She launched herself out of the water so suddenly it dragged the baby with her and they skimmed away together at speed.
The tender troupe reformed and headed west, Lax and ousted calf Qball trailing behind.
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.goodnaturedstatistics.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.