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Identifying and respecting other personalities: stories to inspire

The study of animal personalities is rapidly become one of the fastest growing areas of research in behavioural biology and ecology. The term ‘personality’, within this context, is used to describe significant behavioural and physiological differences between individuals of the same species, which are consistent over time in different contexts or situations. For field researchers, the personalities of their study subjects may have important implications for their results and thus for conservation efforts.

For example, just as we humans may react differently in different situations, other species may exhibit differential responses or vulnerability to certain stressors in their environment or certain social situations. Does this mean that for some populations we may eventually be able to identify and quantify personality characteristics, such as brave or committed, timid or resourceful? Perhaps.

What will this mean for the way in which we define populations or sub-groups within those populations? How might this influence conservation and protection efforts? Only time will tell. At present we are left watching, often in amazement, at some of the interesting events that unfold in the natural environment; where an individual from one species apparently adopts an individual from another, or comes to their aid. There’s been a variety of such awe inspiring whale and dolphin stories circulating over the last few months. It would be timely to reflect upon some of these tales and consider what personality traits might possibly be in play and how this may highlight the uniqueness of each of these individuals. Many dolphin species live in complex social groups, some can innovate and then learn from each other. For example, there are some bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia that use sponges as tools to help them forage.

Research shows that the female ‘spongers’ (as these tool-using dolphins are known) tend to be more ‘cliquish’ and preferentially associate with other dolphins that ‘sponge’ suggesting that, like humans, these female dolphins prefer to associate with those individuals who share their sub-culture (in this case, the use of sponges as tools). Let’s consider just a few of the recent stories in the media, which help to give us some other rare glimpses into the private lives of dolphins and whales.

Common dolphins come to the aid of another group member In a compelling account from Korean waters, a group of five common dolphins were recorded using their bodies as a raft to try to keep another stricken dolphin afloat. A full account of the event is available in the journal Marine Mammal Science. There have been a number of recorded incidents of dolphins supporting dead or stillborn calves near the surface using their bodies. This is not unexpected, as air breathing mammals, once a calf is born the mother must ensure the youngster reaches the surface swiftly enough for his or her first gasp of air. However, cases where females have been recorded supporting the bodies of their dead calves, sometimes for many days after the calf has died, also raise speculation about these individuals exhibiting grief. What is unusual about the story from Korea is the collective and coordinated effort of these dolphins (reported up to 10) to keep their companion afloat. The researchers reported that the dolphins appeared to take on different roles, with some attempting to keep the stricken individual afloat, whilst others circled around, perhaps providing protection. They note that five dolphins at a time lined up to form a raft to support the ailing dolphin, whilst another used their mouth to keep the dolphin’s head (and blowhole) above the water.

Stricken dolphin calmly permits help from a diver In an equally amazing story an entangled dolphin allowed a scuba-diver to delicately cut away the fishing line from his or her pectoral fin and mouth. This video footage is so compelling that it quickly became international news. Perhaps the most remarkable part of this entire event is the point at which the dolphin leaves the diver to surface for air and then returns so that the diver can continue to cut away and remove the fishing line.

Sperm whales and a dolphin with a deformed spine Another incredible story, again between species, details how a bottlenose dolphin, born with a severe spinal curvature, was apparently ‘adopted’ (at least in the short-term) by a group of sperm whales. The researchers note that the dolphin was observed for eight days interacting with the whales. It is difficult to determine the motivations on either side for such behaviour, nevertheless this is a fascinating account of unusual inter-species interaction.

Dolphins call each other by name? And finally, if any reconfirmation of the importance of social bonds between dolphins were needed, the results of some interesting research on dolphin signature whistles, demonstrates that dolphins actually copy the signature whistles of other dolphins when separated from them. This research concludes that: ‘This use of vocal copying is similar to its use in human language, where the maintenance of social bonds appears to be more important than the immediate defence of resources’.

Why do scientific reports AND anecdotal accounts matter? Scientific research helps us to understand the complexity of the world around us. Anecdotal reports can give some good clues about which scientific questions we should be asking. Personal, individual accounts, such as some of those described here, enable us to opens our minds about the way in which whales and dolphins may live; how they interact with each other and their environments. Some of these compelling stories inevitably challenge us to consider whales and dolphins as ‘who’ not ‘what’, with individual personalities, capable of experiencing a range of emotions.

In stark contrast, the shocking analysis of the brutal killing method being used to kill dolphins caught in the Japanese drive hunts in Taiji, challenge us to reject these hunts, not only on the basis of the insurmountable animal welfare issues, but also on the basis that these are all unique individuals, each contributing in their own distinctive ways to their complex communities. Beyond our initial reactions to the horror depicted in the footage from the dolphin hunts in Taiji and elsewhere, it is important to consider the true nature of dolphins to better understand the extent of the atrocities being committed. I wonder what the unique personality traits of the dolphin killed in this footage might have been, or whether they had a unique name within their social group. One thing is certain, for that individual, we will never know. If you haven’t done so already, please sign our petition.