Bottlenose Dolphin Adopts Whale Calf of Another Species

Interspecies adoptions are rare, but it’s not the first time this population of dolphins in French Polynesia has attempted it.

From a small inflatable boat in the Rangiroa atoll in French Polynesia, Pamela Carzon got her first glimpse of the “strange” trio of marine mammals she’d been told about: a bottlenose dolphin mother (Tursiops truncatus), her seven-month-old calf, and another young cetacean that was slightly smaller and looked to be not a bottlenose dolphin at all, but a melon-headed whale (Peponocephala electra). 

It was April 2015, and Carzon and a colleague at the Marine Mammal Study Group of French Polynesia, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to whale and dolphin conservation, were out for the NGO’s annual photo-ID survey, very much hoping to find animals that a former collaborator had seen while diving in the region the previous November. “[T]he sea was very calm, and there were many dolphins around,” Carzon, also a PhD student at the Center for Island Research and Environmental Observatory (CRIOBE) in French Polynesia and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, recalls in an email to The Scientist. “It took us maybe two minutes to spot them: the dark calf was easy to spot among the bottlenose dolphins.”

DOLPHIN ADOPTION: A female bottlenose dolphin in the South Pacific has been sighted with both her own calf and another young cetacean identified as a melon-headed whale.

The mother, dubbed ID#TP25 by the researchers, was known to tolerate divers and boats, and that April day she approached the inflatable with both calves. Carzon grabbed her underwater camera and slipped into the water. “I was able to get good underwater footage and to sex both calves,” she says. ID#TP25’s natural calf was a female; the second calf was male. “I also noticed that both were ‘gently’ pushing each other [in order] to remain under the adult female’s abdomen” in so-called infant position. Continued observation over the following months revealed that the dolphin mom was nursing the foreign calf, whose species ID remains to be confirmed with genetic testing, and otherwise treated him as one of her own.

Carzon had been studying the bottle-nose dolphin community inhabiting the northern part of Rangiroa atoll for a decade and knew that the cetaceans had a history of bringing young animals of other species into their group. In 1996, researchers observed a newborn spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostrisswimming in the slipstream of an adult male bottlenose—a behavior known as echelon swimming and a common interaction between mothers and calves. Scientists also regularly spotted a juvenile spinner dolphin over the next two years, often with a particular adult female bottlenose, Carzon says, although it’s not clear whether it was the same individual they saw as a newborn. Then, in November 1998, a newborn melon-headed whale spent a few weeks in the area and was filmed swimming in echelon position with the same female bottlenose that had associated with the young spinner dolphin.

More recently, another adult female bottlenose in the same community has twice been seen with young of a different species. In January 2011, she was spotted with a neonate spinner dolphin for a few days, and in February 2018, she was photographed with a newborn Fraser’s dolphin (Lagenodelphis hosei), which swam alongside her in echelon position. With such behaviors apparently relatively common within this social group, ID#TP25 may have picked up a thing or two from her conspecific companions, speculates Carzon. “The evidence that bottlenose dolphins are capable of imitation is very strong,” she says. “[S]ocially transmitted ideas or practices from cultural models may have influenced [ID#TP25’s] behavior.” 

As is the case with most animal adoptions in the wild, how the mother bottlenose came to acquire the melon-headed whale calf is unknown. The calf’s natural mother may have died, or the bottlenose dolphin group may have “kidnapped” it, a behavior that was once observed in a dolphin group in the

Bay of Gibraltar, Carzon notes. Whatever scenario landed the outside calf in the care of dolphin ID#TP25, the adoption was stable, lasting more than two years. ID#TP25’s naturalcalf disappeared by early 2016, suggesting it died or weaned early, possibly joining another social group.

There is only one other published case of intraspecies adoption by animals in the wild: for about 14 months in the early 2000s, researchers documented the integration of an infant marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) into a group of capuchin monkeys (Cebus libidinosus) in woodland savanna of central Brazil. A female monkey that the researchers had thought was pregnant but who perhaps lost her own baby cared for the infant marmoset, carrying it on her back and appearing to nurse it. “It was amazing because when she appeared, she was tiny tiny tiny,” says Patrícia Izar, a primate ethologist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil who observed the adoption. “She was really a newborn, and she survived.” Izar says she was particularly astonished because she knew that some groups of capuchin monkeys eat young marmosets. Care for the young animal was eventually assumed by another female capuchin, and all group members appeared to tolerate the marmoset’s presence.

As for why intraspecies adoptions do—rarely—occur, wildlife conservation professor Robert Young of the University of Salford in the UK suggests that animals may not recognize that they’re caring for young of another species. In the case of the dolphins, the presumed melon-headed whale is similar in size to the adoptive mother’s own bottlenose dolphin calf, and the dolphins have not evolved a strong ability to differentiate their own young from those of another species. “There’s good reason to think it’s just an identification problem,” says Young, who says he has observed a handful of intraspecies adoptions among black-fronted titi monkeys (Callicebus nigrifrons) in Brazil.

The high levels of oxytocin coursing through mammalian mothers’ bodies and the abundance of resources are also likely to be relevant factors. Indeed, in the case of the capuchin group that took in a marmoset baby, Izar and her colleagues had been providing coconuts to study the animals’ use of stones to crack the fruit open, meaning that the monkeys had plenty of food to eat, and so looking after additional young might have been less costly. Interspecies adoptions are also much more common among domestic and captive animals, for whom food is often plentiful, than they are in the wild, Young notes. “If you’ve got a lactating female dog, you can just about get it to rear any other mammal.”

Documented cases of interspecies adoption among the Rangiroa dolphins and Brazilian monkeys “shows that it’s not impossible,” says Izar. “I think that in time we will have other cases in the wild.”

The adoption was stable, lasting more than two years.



How Can I Make a Difference in The World as a Dolphin Behaviourist?

Taking the opportunity in this information age, there is no better time to educate others about this exciting but sometines controversial topic.

Help educate those who do not have any idea of how we train dolphins and explain proper techniques that are enriching and caring.

There are some people out there, who think training a dolphin is something negative, here we try to help aviod common misunderstandings and shock those who thought they knew about this subject.

For instance, it may be surprising to some to know that the technique used to train dolphins is the same technique used  in school to teach children at school.

Positive Reinforcement/Operant Conditioning

Apart from my extensive years of experience being a spetialist in marine mammal training behaviours, I have adquired teahcing qualifications that have enabled me to  work with children, within national education schools in England, UK. I have used positive reinforcement to modify unwanted behaviour in countless children, many also having learning desabilities, with great success.

I expereinced that edutaional staff, who had excellent teaching records and an experienced career in teaching, had given up on these children ever being helped fully. They did not have the right knowledge or resources to correct certain kinds of behaviour. I took up the challenge to improve their behaviour and had fantastic results, removing unwanted behaviour completely. Because I focused on positive reinforcement, I  could target my actions specifically and positively modify the childs behaviour. This encouraged them to learn on a more positive way, especially those with learning desabilities children. I corrected behaviours using operant conditioning methods, always rewarding wanted behaviour positively and being careful never to punish, but divert, suggest ways forward and show the merit of good behaviour or effort.

A couple years ago I was invited to create the first FaceBook group about dolphin training, Dolphin Trainers of the Caribbean. I realised whilst doing educational programs for this group, that I would like to expand this help in the future. I wanted to educate those who lacked knowledge in the dolphin training world. I created my own group Via Dolphin. One of the main reasons and the greatest joy of this group, is seeing the posibility of making a difference to the lives and careers of trainers all over the world. I wanted to give the opportunity to anyone interested in learning how to train a dolphin. I would show them how this can be achieved in a happy and positive environment, which is then not only the best way to care for the  dolphins under human care, but gives joy and enrichment to both dolphins, trainers and lovers of dolphins alike.

So to recap on the reducation regarding any negative attitudes towards dolphin training, I hope to educate and inform those animal lovers, who think that training dolphins is not right. Dolphin under human care dolphins cannot be transferred into the wild environment, since most have never lived as wild dolphins and the would not survive or be happy to leave their only known environment, where they have food, health care and enrichment amongst familiar dolphins. To try to ensure their environment is the very best it can be and their lives are the most enriched they can be is my goal. Intelligent open-minded people will see that there is nothing negative about training an animal positively, whether it is a dolphin, a sea lion, monkey, hourse, dog, tiger or a bird.

I understand there are people that believe dolphins within human care, are treated very bad and that they are mistreated by the facilities. I aknowledge some problems may be out there, but to address this, my information, help and training is designed to educate and help improve all facilities and trainers environments. It must also be ackowledged that negative misinformation and manipulated propaganda, also exists to confuse and misguide, so our message is one of factual contant, proven techniques and explainations of positve reinforcement and positive enrichment approach at all times.

Many years ago, there was not enough information for trainers and their techniques left a lot to be desired. Today there is no such excuse, research studies scientificaly prove that positive training is the best and most effective technique for teaching and enrichment of all living life, animals as well as humans.

Animals and humans learn best whilst palying and having fun, they don’t even notice they are learning or training because it is enjoyable and is based on trust.

No-one should be deprived of the opportunity to learn and providing material for all animal lovers, to understand what a positive and enriching experience the proper  training techniques can provide, will hopefully help us all to live together in a much more positive way.

How to Become a Great Dolphin Trainer

Let’s say you have done your research and you have reached your conclusion… that you want to be a dolphin trainer!

This would be my first piece of advice to you.

Observe your animal, bear in mind that all of them have different characters.

Observe the animal you are being assigned very closely, it is important that you observe all of them and the way each one behaves, but in particular, the one you are going to work with. Every time you have any spare time, sit down close to the animal and observe all their behaviours, their body language and interaction with other animals.

Environments affect behaviour, predict your animal’s behaviour, keep your eyes scanning around while working with yours and be aware that another animals’ behaviour affects your animal behaviour. If there is anybody or an even an object around, that your animal is not comfortable with, try to take them to another area or environment where they are more relaxed. As with children, once your animal has realized that you are always protecting them, then they will trust you.

Communication skills are paramount; during your sessions, your animal’s behaviour depends on the quality of the communication you have with other trainers and how aware you are of your surroundings. Anticipation and planning ahead is very important when handling your animal. Dolphins love doing different things, they are very cheeky, they also get bored quickly with the same thing over and over, but when they are learning something new, they are usually concentrated, curious and excited for what may come next. Some behaviours take time and concentration. Take as an example, husbandry behaviours (medical behaviours) these are examples where a high level of concentration from your animal will be required and they also need to be very relaxed.

Before you start training any behaviour, you must communicate with other trainers and let them know how long you are going to take and where the training is going to take place. State the starting time and ending time, before you end, you need to make eye contact with other trainers and let the animals go at the same time, so your animal does not go and interrupt any other trainer’s session. This is the best way of getting the best discipline, instilling good habits in your animals that results in a good quality training session and a positive outcome for all.

Do not copy other trainers, do not assume because the animal you are working with would let another trainer to put their hand in their mouth you can do the same. Different animals have different relationships with other trainers, you must gain and build your animals trust and this will depend on the way that you treat them, just like any other human or animal interaction. Observe the best trainers work, but do not confuse the best one with the one in charge. Observe closely and choose what would you do different, take a notepad with you and write it down, one day you will need it.

Many trainers underestimate and misunderstand the importance of Operant Condition (Positive Reinforcement), when to use it and how to use it. Some trainers just read through it to “tick that box,” but there is a big different between reading it to pass a test, perhaps making your supervisor happy or to take him/her off your back and really using it properly. Supervisors and other trainers, should be watching each other and making sure that everything is right and that your work is acceptable. To assist you, they should always make sure, that the other trainers handle their animals fairly and in the best way possible, especially if you are a new assistant. Trainers must learn the techniques of positive reinforcement to apply it successfully, for the benefit of the animals and you.

What to do in a competitive environment such as a dolphin training job?

Responsibilities: this is what is going to set you apart from the crowd and so you are not classified as just being one of the usual group of trainers.

Be independent: consistent, practice good discipline, but also be very patient with your animal and others.

Be confident: trust yourself, do what your gut tells you, usually when you have researched well and apply good principles, it is the right thing to do.

Ask: if you have doubts; ask, there is not such a thing as silly questions.

Improve:  progress is what makes people happy, make sure you are going forward and improving your skills.

Study: make sure you find time to study, allocate the best time for you to improve your knowledge. The world is constantly evolving, updating information with new research, so you need to keep your knowledge fresh.

Want it: make sure whatever you do is the best for you and then do it to the best of your abilities. Whatever the circumstances, never think you are not capable of doing whatever you desire. You just have to want it!