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Dolphins Riding Whales? It's Not Exactly New

Jul 18, 2015 09:21 PM EDT
dolphin surfs whale

(Photo : Lori Mazzuca via The Whale and Dolphin People Project)

Recently, a photo of a playful dolphin riding the nose of a humpback whale has been circulating around popular social media. It's a stunning display of cross-species friendship, and certainly something to be celebrated. However, this isn't some new and strange behavior seen among a few extra-progressive dolphins. According to researchers, this kind of thing has been happening for a long time.

The photo in question, was actually first shared on the Facebook page for The Whale and Dolphin People Project back in 2011. This intriguing group is dedicated to showing the world just how 'person-like' cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) can be. Some members have even called for these animals be granted legal personhood in the past - a radical step that's more commonly suggested to ensure great ape conservation.

However, person-hood or no, it's hard to deny that this is clearly an example of interspecies play - and one that would take a great deal of cooperation.

"[This photo] was taken by Lori Mazzuca in Hawaii. She said that the dolphin and humpback whale were playing gently together," the photo's original caption read. "The game seemed to be about how long the dolphin could stay atop the whale's head while the whale swam. When the dolphin finally slipped off it joined another dolphin and they began to leap with joy."

News of the photo quickly spread, and later that same year, another bottlenose dolphin was spotted doing something similar - laying across a humpback whale as he surfed around. Scientists working under a NOAA research permit at the time took multiple pictures and concluded that due to the dolphin's apparent relaxation and eagerness to 'climb' back onto its partner every time it slipped off, this was clearly play, and not some form of aggression on the whale's part. (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: American Museum of Natural History]

"Based on the description, I believe play would be the best explanation," Ken Ramirez, vice president of animal care and training at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium later explained, after Discovery's Emily Sohn expressed her skepticism.

"It is believed that the 'surfing' or bow riding that dolphins exhibit in front of boats may have had its genesis in riding in front or in the wake of big whales," he said. "What we may be seeing here is that type of surfing, but in this case the whale chose to give the dolphin a different type of ride."

A 2010 paper published in Aquatic Mammals reflects these sentiments as well, showing that for some time now, scientists have wondered after this unusual play. Another root of the behavior may be in nurturing traditions, where humpback parents similarly lift and prod their young.

Interestingly, this kind of repeated lifting to the surface is not always fun and games. A study recently published in the journal Acta Ethologica details how Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) often carry their dead or dying pod-members on their backs in what can only be described as 'ritualistic mourning.'

In some cases, the researchers observed pods carrying their dead for days, sometimes even to the point where a carcass would begin to decompose. It was argued that this alone is enough evidence to prove the dolphins know their friend is dead. They are not mistaking death for illness or fatigue, and more importantly, they are not being playful in this "surfing."

Still, the similarities between these two behaviors is striking, and certainly provides some food for thought. If some whales are so friendly in play, would they also help in such processions? Do the similarities between whale and dolphin communal behavior go that far?

According to its authors, the 2010 paper - which was the first of its kind - is just the beginning, encouraging "efforts to document the frequency, duration, and nature of [these] interactions."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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