Saturday, September 16, 2006

Do dolphins fight?

I remember a talk I gave to kindergarteners on animal behavior. All they wanted to know was how animals fight. If an alligator and a whale had a fight, they asked, who would win? If an anaconda and a tiger had a fight, who would win?I quickly decided I couldn’t win. Human interest in conflict is constant. Ok. How do dolphins fight? Late Saturday afternoon, there was a big dolphin fight on the shallow grass flats behind our largest mangrove island. Dolphins act like people. They are friendly and affectionate. They are protective. They get irritable.

They fight to get what they want. Dolphins don’t have physical structures like real estate or abstract concepts like money. They can’t fight symbolically. They use their bodies to get things done. Their bodies reflect the fights they’ve been in.When dolphins have obvious physical contact with each other, marine mammalogists say they are ‘socializing.’

There’s lots of dolphin socializing. Dolphins are sensual animals like people become sensual in the water. We can’t help it. Water creates lovely sensations. We swirl and roll and wiggle. Water does that for us and to us. It’s our skin. Most naked animals love water: elephants, walruses, hippos. Skin gives us more sensations than fur lets in.When dolphins are affectionate, their movements are gentle and slow.

They’re done easily underwater. We rarely see dolphin affection from the surface. It happens underwater regularly.When dolphins are angry, their movements are hard like a punch is hard. If you’re a dolphin, your tail is your fist. Dolphins punch each other by whipping each other with their peduncles (tailstocks). The behavior is called tail whips. Water makes it hard to punch underwater. Water takes the punch out of your punch.

Consequently, dolphins fight in shallows like sea grass meadows. It’s easier to get their peduncles out the water to throw a punch. Once that happens, tensions sometimes escalate into brawls. Without warning, we were alerted to a potential fight by the sudden appearance of a dolphin bowing over the glistening water. Dolphin bows are beautiful U-turns in the air. They shoot out of the water, bend in the letter C and reenter the water nearly where they came out. Bows tells us dolphins are ‘socializing’ under the water.

Bows can mean tensions. They are used to zing by someone at close range. Snow boarders and skaters know what I mean. Bows are also used to knock someone over. Though very pretty, bows can be intimidation tactics. The dolphin bowed along the edge of a sea wall where a shallow sand mesa drops an abrupt 20 vertical feet. Its reentry was clean, flawless. The water settled. But something was brewing. We were glued to the empty water.When the action ignites, everyone starts punching like a barroom brawl. Water erupted over the grass flats. Lunging and swinging, brawling opponents created great water turbulence.

Water lashed sideways from tail whips. The more powerful these splashes, the harder the punches and more earnest the conflict. This fight was serious. The fight went on and on, punctuated by three to four punches traded at the surface. Between punches, the dolphins took the fight underwater where biting and toothraking is easier. Then they’d surface, breathing heavily. Their vaporous breaths rose skyward. It’s hard to brawl in water for long.

Between punches and heavy breathing, a dolphin sharked slowly along the water surface and then paused, rafting. From there, it climbed over another dolphin. Then the punching started again.You had to wonder if there was a receptive female underneath it all, although who isn’t ‘receptive’ in the face of aggression. Most animals brawl over mating rights. Like human males, bulls are quintessentially competitive about receptive females.

Dolphins here tend to give birth in late summer. Females are pregnant a year. So along with new moms and babies, it makes sense that there would also be lots of sex and fights over sex in late summer.

Not only must we keep the sea grass beds healthy for the fish. We must keep them healthy for dolphin tournaments like this one. Admission is free. Just remember that the bleachers are 50 yards away from the boxing ring.Postscript. The next day, we found a brand new baby dolphin, the eighth born here this summer.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"