Every boat needs a crew and every crew needs a captain. A leader is generally vital for the necessary coordination within groups, helping them collectively organize themselves and learn to improve. For highly intelligent animals that move and exist in social units, such as the members of the gregarious toothed whale family (Odontoceti), a leader is of utmost importance. The nature of such leaderships, however, varies according to the species and its typical group dynamic.
Oceanic dolphins aggregate in very fluid social groups that vary in size and often depend on hunting, mating and socializing opportunities as well as the age and gender of the animals. Despite their fickle nature, these groups are still subject to social hierarchy where dominance and leadership are demonstrated through strength, fitness and/or experience. Nursery groups, for instance, are compact groups that consist of female dolphins with calves and are usually lead by the oldest and most experienced female of the pod. Most other schools usually have two or more males as leading animals, who coordinate hunting and the temporary dynamic of the pod. The competition for the leading role is unforgiving so friendships amongst male dolphins can be quite useful to gain respect and order within pods. Male Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) form friendships that can last up to 20 years which are ironically known as alliances and these are highly beneficial for their position within the hierarchy. Large pods, such as those frequently formed by Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) tend to have several leading animals.
Other members of the toothed whale family do things a little differently. Beaked whales (Ziphiidae), for instance, exist in a sort of harem, with an alpha male watching over a group of females and juveniles. Short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) tend to exist in more rigid, matrilineal social structures which are very similar to those of elephants. Here, an experienced female, the leading female, teaches her herd how to communicate, hunt and coexist. The group depends on her and she is the foundation of the social-learning that allows these mammals to pass on several cultural aspects of the herd to future generations.
But leadership is meaningless without the necessary support from fellow peers. All Odontocetes, even the leading animals, must constantly nurture the relationships that are vital for their survival. This morning we witnessed the unique synchronized group dynamic of Striped dolphins aboard our Ribeira Brava while the guests aboard the Stenella saw a small group of foraging Bottlenose dolphins along with a relaxed herd of pilot whales. Our guests also enjoyed some additional entertainment provided by our captains little assistant. Like I said before, a good captain always needs some reliable backup 🙂
By Paula Thake
Sightings of the day
10:00 Striped dolphins
15:00 Bottlenose dolphins, Short-finned pilot whales