Dolphins give sponges in mating gestures

Gift-giving behaviour observed in humpback dolphins.
A humpback dolphin with a marine sponge. The latest example of sponges as gifts could be male dolphins showing off in order to present their strength.
A humpback dolphin with a marine sponge. The latest example of sponges as gifts could be male dolphins showing off in order to present their strength.PHOTO: THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Decade-long research shows it happens regularly among Australian humpbacks

Much like a suitor woos his object of desire with a bouquet of roses, dolphins do so with sponges.

Researchers have captured this rare behaviour: Male humpback dolphins presenting females with large marine sponges in an apparent effort to mate.

The researchers had observed a male dolphin dive below the ocean's surface and remove a marine sponge that was stuck on the sea floor. Steadily balancing it on its beak, the dolphin then presented it to his potential lady lover.

After a decade's worth of research on these Australian humpback dolphins, the scientists from the University of Western Australia's (UWA) School of Biological Sciences, the University of Zurich and Australia's Murdoch University discovered that this was a regular occurrence.

Said lead author Simon Allen, who is from UWA's School of Biological Sciences: "We were at first perplexed to witness these intriguing behavioural displays, but as we undertook successive field trips over the years, the evidence mounted."

It is rare to see sexual displays from mammal s, said UWA in a statement.

"Here we have some of the most socially complex animals on the planet using sponges, not as a foraging tool, but as a gift, a display of his quality," he added.

INTRIGUING FIND

Here we have some of the most socially complex animals on the planet using sponges, not as a foraging tool, but as a gift, a display of his quality.

DR SIMON ALLEN, from UWA's School of Biological Sciences, on the discovery of such behavioural displays by dolphins. 

Dolphins are known to be extremely intelligent, and possess many human traits. They have distinct personalities, a strong sense of the self, love to play and can think about the future. They can also pick up new behaviour from one another. Bottlenose dolphins, for instance, can recognise themselves in a mirror and use it to inspect various parts of their bodies.

The scientists suggested that the latest example of sponges as gifts could be the male dolphins showing off in order to present their strength - making them irresistible mating partners.

 

Aside from the sponge gift to entice females, the male dolphins were also found to be performing visual and acoustic displays. Some larger males were working in pairs to deliver their gifts, which is extremely uncommon as mating success cannot be shared.

This new discovery has paved the way for more research into whether delivering these sponge gifts to female humpback dolphins can improve the male's chance of mating, the researchers said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2017, with the headline 'Dolphins give sponges in mating gestures'. Print Edition | Subscribe