Sunday, January 14, 2007

Baby Face, the cutest calf of the bottlenose dolphin specie, near Tampa Bay

Like the old song, we've Got the "Cutest Little Baby Face" of our own around here. Baby Face was the last bottlenose dolphin calf born in our area this summer. It's named after its mother, who is named Face. Face got her name because the rips on the trailing edge of her dorsal fin look like a surprised expression in silhouette.

The name Baby Face doesn't imply gender. We don't yet know if it is male or female. I bet its a little male. (One of the best-kept secrets about science is that we get to make bets all the time. Called hypotheses, they're bets all the same.)Baby Face made it through the vital first 4 months of life by Christmas, graduating from a tiny shiny newborn to a bright and lively toddler, maybe too lively.

In fact, Baby Face seems precocious. For example, Baby Face seems to roam further from mom than is typical for its age. For the majority of the 4000 kinds of mammals, mother is the center of baby's universe. Dolphin calves neither cling like infant primates nor hide in dens like carnivore kits, cubs and pups. They swim from birth although it takes about 3 months to get good at it.

Until then, they mostly stick to mother's side or she to theirs. This must make it hard for new dolphin mothers to hunt and I really wonder how they manage. Initially, Face and Baby Face were side-by-side.Each mammalian species has a typical 'magic circle' around mom within which the infant roams. Its size is generally dictated by each species' ecological niche and psychology. It grows as the infant develops. The older they get, the further they venture from mom. For individual infants, 'courage' is also influenced by their trust in mom.

Watch a mobile baby. How far they roam reveals their security in her. Judging from Baby Face's travels, Face is either a good reliable mom or an indifferent one with a crazy little boy.The evidence suggests that Face is more reliable than indifferent. Indifferent mothers don't change their behavior much. Face changed dramatically from the last four months of pregnancy to her first four months as Baby Face's mother.

She shifted who and how she spent time with other dolphins. From May to December, she spent time with an amazing 72 other dolphins, about 40 percent of dolphins we've identified. It's a peek at how dolphins use their prodigious memories. Humans have the brainpower to keep 60-80 close or good relationships in mind; the rest are acquaintances. It's an interesting parallel. Understanding that who Face spent time with is influenced who was available, here is how she changed.While pregnant, Face was a social butterfly, spending 20 percent or less of her time with individual dolphins.

As a new mother, however, she showed clear preferences, some predictable, others odd.Predictably, she spent over half her time with good old Tanks and DD1, both mothers in the past. She spent more time with Q, another past mother. Intriguingly, she also spent more time with DD2, a local bull. Equally intriguing, he spent a lot of time swimming with Baby Face like a mom. Oddly, in her late pregnancy, Face was never with X . After giving birth, Face spent more time with her than anyone else. The same basically held for mom White Front. However, both have year-old calves.

Her social circle excluded 25 other dolphins completely.Predictably, she changed how she behaved. In late pregnancy, Face was in the middle of dolphin social events. As a new mother, she stayed on the periphery of them, shepherding vulnerable little Baby Face out of harm's way . Though its life is filled with other dolphins, Baby Face is the only newborn around at the moment. It only zips around the older calves without, as far as we know, wrestling with them just yet. What do you bet that little Baby Face is going to keep up?

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"