When Richard Connor rocked up in Shark Bay as a young, aspiring dolphin researcher nearly four decades ago, he could never have foreseen he would one day be described as “the Jane Goodall of dolphin research”.
- The Shark Bay dolphin community is “the most complex non-human society on the planet”
- Male dolphins form alliances that stay together for up to 20 years
- Shark Bay’s large seagrass beds support a lot of undersea life
He had travelled from the US and hitchhiked to the Monkey Mia holiday settlement.
There, he pitched his dome tent, intent on learning more about the wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins that visited to be hand fed.
Without so much as a boat, he watched the dolphins from the shore.
Now, 37 years later and with a team of colleagues and the latest in boat, camera, underwater communication, and echo-sounding equipment, Professor Connor is still just as captivated by dolphins and their complex love stories playing out beneath the sea’s surface.
“Most people don’t realise that the dolphin population here in Shark Bay is the most complex non-human society on the planet,” he said.
“It’s more complex than any other dolphin population, chimpanzees, anything, and it’s right here in Shark Bay. It’s a very special place.”
Richard Connor says his first impression of Shark Bay was of one of “magic”. (ABC Midwest Wheatbelt: Samille Mitchell)
Not magic, but science
Professor Connor, from the University of Massachusetts, had a loose research plan but knew that if he watched the dolphins for long enough, fascinating traits would emerge.
“For two days in that first season, we managed to borrow the proprietor’s tinnie and go out on two glassy days, and the bay was just loaded with dolphins,” he said.
“That’s when we first saw the magic of the place.”
That “magic” unfolded in ways he had never imagined and he soon found that the Monkey Mia dolphins gathered in what scientists called “alliances”.
Two or three male dolphins form one alliance, like a group of mates.
They in turn are part of a bigger alliance of between four to 14 male dolphins — a wider circle of buddies who will hang together for up to 20 years.
Like human societies, dolphins have an open social network says Professor Connor. (ABC: David Hudspeth, file photo)
The bigger alliance is then in turn friendly with other alliances and together they attack other alliances to steal their females.
Professor Connor and his team learned that pairs and trios of males often coerced their females to stay with them — and that they were not averse to using aggression to do so.
Like human societies, here was a group of animals with an open social network.
Beneath the surface of the sea, complex love and hate stories were playing out — dramas awash with love, friendships, affairs, power plays, and gang attacks.
“The second and third-level alliances will cooperate to attack other groups to take their females and to defend against such attacks,” Professor Connor said.
“And that kind of multi-level alliance formation is only found in one other species — our own.”
‘Marine biologist’s paradise’
Professor Connor, who has been described as “the Jane Goodall of dolphins” by Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, had questions.
He wanted to know why these dolphins were so complex, more so than other dolphin populations and more so than every other species but ours.
Professor Connor said the answers to those questions lay in Shark Bay’s unusually rich natural environment where there was enough food to support them and their sheer numbers meant they were forced to interact.
Research vessels from the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance are used to gather information on the mammals. (Supplied: Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance/Simon Allen)
Given their large brain size — second only to humans when compared with body size — and the close interaction with so many other dolphins, complicated relationship dynamics emerged.
“Shark Bay is a marine biologist’s paradise,” Professor Connor said.
“You’ve got the largest seagrass beds in the world and that supports a lot of life.
“The complexity we see out there could be simplified as: if you run into your enemies, you’d better be with your friends.”
Unusual feeding traits
So fascinating have been Professor Connor’s and others’ discoveries that a group of mostly international scientists have come together to form the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance.
They discovered that each dolphin was unique, and that these dolphins had learned different ways to feed compared to the way their parents gathered food.
Some Monkey Mia dolphins adorn their snouts with sponges, which they use as a tool to forage from the ocean floor. (Supplied: Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance/Simon Allen)
Some had learned to adorn their snouts with sponges to scour the ocean floor to feed, others upended empty shells onto their snouts to capture fish hiding inside.
Still others herded fish onto the beach, then hydroplaned up onto the sand to capture them.
Some were partial to ‘kerplunking’ — raising their tails high above the surface and slamming them down in shallow waters to send water soaring skywards and startle fish from their seagrass hiding holes.
Ten-year research project
While the scientists have discovered a lot about Shark Bay’s dolphins — it is the second-most studied dolphin population in the world behind Florida’s — Professor Connor said there was still so much more to learn.
Some Shark Bay dolphins have learned to upend shells to capture fish inside. (Supplied: Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance/Allesandro Pierini)
That is why he and his colleagues at the Shark Bay Dolphin Research Alliance are seeking to gather enough funds to launch the Dolphin Decade — the world’s most ambitious dolphin study project.
Over 10 years, they plan to conduct a multi-pronged research program into many different aspects of dolphin behaviour at once — but they are racing against time.
Despite his joy at observing the creatures, Professor Connor and his team were worried about the grim future for dolphins and this incredible ecosystem.
His colleagues have conducted studies revealing that the 2010/11 marine heatwave that devastated so much of Shark Bay’s seagrass also hit the dolphin population hard.
Dolphin survivorship dropped by 12 per cent immediately following the heatwave, and females gave birth to fewer offspring.
With such heatwaves predicted to become more common, the prognosis for Shark Bay and its marine life is concerning.
The Dolphin Decade may be the last chance to gather information about largely untouched dolphin populations if predictions of more intense and more frequent marine heatwaves play out.
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