The Social World of the Bottlenose Dolphin

A new view of Flipper!

For this week’s posting I thought I would take a more educational route and share some information on an animal we all know and love; the Bottle Nose Dolphin (They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightening…). The scientific or Latin name for the Bottle Nose Dolphin is Tursiops Truncates. Now, we are all familiar with dolphins and have heard a lot about their intelligence; but what I find interesting about these animals is their social structure. I think this aspect of their behavior also speaks to their intelligence.

Bottlenose dolphins are very gregarious creatures and their social behaviors are a large part of their daily routines. Bottlenose dolphins, like many other cetaceans (marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises), live in groups referred to as pods. A dolphin pod is a fluid social unit with animals coming and going. The pod size can range between 2-15 animals near shore with groups of hundreds offshore; on the west coast of Florida the average size is around seven dolphins per pod. At times pods will join together to form large herds.

The composition of the pod is influenced heavily on age, sex, and reproductive conditions. The social bonds within these groups of animals are very strong. This bond can also be strong between two individual animals within the pod where one animal will actually have a preference for another individual; so there are “friends” within the pod. It has even been suggested that they can identify each other after a time of prolonged separation.

Mothers and calves typically stay together and have long-lasting bonds. It is not uncommon for another dolphin to stay close to a new mother and calf. This dolphin may be male or female and is typically the only other animal a mother allows near the calf. Sub-adult males tend to stay together in groups whereas the adult males travel alone; however they can often be seen in pairs or trios forming bonds known to last 20 years or more. The adult males rarely associate with the sub-adult males.

Most animals, including cetaceans, have a social hierarchy that exists in their respective groups. Establishment of their ranking within the group is communicated through various displays of dominance such as the slapping of tails against the water, biting/raking with their teeth, snapping of teeth, head butting, and numerous gestures. Bottlenose dolphins display and defend their dominance by biting, chasing, jaw clapping, and smacking their tails on the water as well as by emitting bubble clouds from their blowholes. This hierarchal structure further exemplifies the importance of the social nature of this animal.

Now, we all know dolphins to be playful animals and play behavior is seen in almost all marine mammals. But this behavior is very important to the species. Play behavior can be in the form of teeth raking, rubbing, chasing, noise production, toy play, and so forth. Play behavior seems to serve several functions including familiarity with their environment, obtaining of social skills and motor functions, as well as for learning self-defense maneuvers and hunting abilities or techniques for catching prey.

When hunting, Bottlenose dolphins often work as a group and have been known to encircle schools of fish and herd them into dense masses. The dolphins then alternate charging through the school to feed. They have also been known to push schools of fish against land structures to trap them in shallow water so they are easily caught. This is done for several reasons including increased ability to capture prey, increased chances in encountering prey, decreased handling time, better ability to protect the catch from other predators and decreased risk of injury when hunting. This type of hunting behavior just further demonstrates the importance of the social bonds between these animals.

Another function of the pod is to protect the weak and young. Large adult males will often patrol the pod looking out for and protecting against predators. This allows for the young to mature within the confines of the pod protected by the dominant male and the mothering female. This social pod structure also serves to protect smaller groups from becoming isolated; which is a potentially fatal flaw. Scouting behavior can also include other duties such as investigation of novel objects or territories. Bottlenose dolphins have also been known to aid ill or injured animals within their pod by physically supporting the other animal at the surface so it can breathe.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my brief insight into the world of the Bottlenose Dolphin and the next time you see one in the wild that this has given you a greater appreciation for this majestic animal. If you enjoyed this post please let me know and I will be sure to include more post about our marine world and the animals within it.



2 Responses to “The Social World of the Bottlenose Dolphin”

  1. BigKahuna February 14, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    I can’t believe I’m going to have to encourage my kids to read this blog!

    • Shawn Martin
      Shawn Martin February 15, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Thanks brother. I will have stuff like this from time to time. Cheers

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