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Outdoors & Recreation
Dolphin Watch
Local bottlenose dolphins toss fish as display
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[Image]
Photo by ANN WEAVER
Local bottlenose dolphin bull DD2 tosses a sheepshead into the air while he eyes the camera, though his gesture was probably for the benefit of other dolphins.
Have you ever heard someone laugh extra loud or seen someone, like one of my coworkers, wear extra-tight jeans and extra-high heels to the office? Such behaviors are “displays” designed to attract attention.

Animals are just as given to displaying as people are, so the variety of animal displays is dizzying.

In the gorgeous days that followed the wild winds of ferocious storm Sandy, the waters had cooled down to the high 60s, which seems to be the dolphins’ favorite water temperature. Our local “water dogs” respond with the same zest that land dogs show on cool crisp mornings. Recently, Capt. John Heidemann and I had occasion to watch zest turn into a dolphin display, which started with exceptional dolphins who don’t romp regardless of water temperatures.

We’d spied two dolphins, a mom and her little baby, in the distance. As they rushed away, I said, “It must be Face and Facet,” which it was. Face has been acting this way since she gave birth to Facet in May.

Protective evasiveness is standard new dolphin mother behavior but has usually waned by the time the calf is Facet’s age. Face treats Facet as if it was brand new instead of almost six months old.

She was careful but not as cautious with her 2006 baby, Babyface, who was the only bottlenose dolphin calf born that year to survive and consequently, grew up as an “only child” dolphin. With few playmates but plenty of adults around, he quickly matured. Facet may have a similar destiny. Most of the calves born in 2011 and 2012 have perished, leaving Facet as virtually the sole survivor.

Face may or may not know this, but she knows that dangers threaten young dolphins and may be extra-protective of Facet because of the fate of her 2010 baby, Falco. Face was much more casual with Falco and wasn’t close enough to protect him from a shark last Easter, as told in Dolphin Watch’s In a good or bad way, I daren’t say. Come to think of it, Face has scurried around wildly ever since.

She rushed Facet to the waters in the shadows of the VA hospital complex towards, as it turns out, local bulls BB and DD2. BB is one of the three who are mostly likely to be Facet’s father, and stopped what he was doing to approach her directly. They converged and swirled together briefly, the dolphin version of a direct greeting. She and her miniature Facet slowed, lingering in the bulls’ vicinity.

It struck me that DD2 did not also greet Face. He had been so convivial with her and Babyface in years past that I considered them to have a particularly affectionate relationship. DD2 did not ignore the situation, however, because he proceeded to put on a dolphin display.

DD2 came out from under an ancient anchored boat with a sheepshead (fish) in his mouth. With a mighty effort, he lunged himself half way out of the water vertically and zinged the fish a couple of feet to the left. Our local dolphins don’t toss fish very often and do so without warning, so it’s hard to get a good picture of it.

As the fish landed with a splash and a plop, DD2 slid forward to retrieve it and BB surfaced at his side. DD2 swam at the water surface for a short distance carrying the fish in his mouth. Local dolphins are particularly inclined to carry sheepshead before consuming them, presumably because the fish have hefty teeth that are indistinguishable from human teeth and must be be-headed before consumption. Tossing these fish is part of the feeding routine but, like the lady who laughs extra loud, it can also serve as a display.

Again, DD2 lunged over the water surface to zing the fish a couple of feet, where it landed with a plunk. He retrieved and carried it again, BB again on his heels.

The last time I saw BB and DD2 act this way with a sheepshead, they gave me my first unequivocal observation of dolphin food sharing in our local waters.

“C’mon guys, share it again!” I cried silently, hoping for another observation of this rare but significant animal behavior.

As they had that first time, DD2 submerged with the fish in his mouth, BB submerged right behind him and when they surfaced again, the fish was be-headed. The moniker “BB-the-Beheader” came to mind though I didn’t have explicit evidence that BB had bitten off the head of DD2’s sheepshead. But the scene sure was familiar.

Some people think dolphins toss fish frequently for tormenting the fish. I disagree. John’s Pass dolphins do not toss fish often and it has nothing to do with tormenting the fish. Our eight-year database contains maybe two dozen references to it, which classifies fish tossing as rare but significant behavior.

The fish is probably dead. At least, none has hit the water and swam away frantically. They don’t move at all. However, most of the episodes in which a dolphin tosses a fish repeatedly occur in strikingly similar social circumstances: the presence of at least one adult of the opposite sex.

As DD2 and BB left the area of the ancient anchored boat, we caught a final view of Face and Facet continuing on their distant course. Face had to have been aware of DD2’s display. But was he displaying for her or his bull buddy BB?

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at dazzled@tampabay.rr.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.
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