Why you should care
Because who wouldn’t want to go to work with a dolphin?
Pet Love: A global look at cozy relationships between people and animals
A fisherman stands knee-deep in the muddy water, waiting, holding his nets. You can’t see the fish, but they’re there — schools of them. Then he sees Caroda and smiles. Caroda starts swimming, rounding up the fish, until … SLAP! And then the fishermen cast their nets. Caroda may sound like an aquatic sheepdog, and she kind of is.
In the small coastal town of Laguna, Brazil, bottlenose dolphins help fishermen round up their catch.
For at least 100 years, these resident dolphins have served as loyal assistants for generations of local fishermen. Each day, a group of fishermen — who pass their knowledge from father to son — work with their finned friends, who even have their own names, to chase the fish and sound the alarm at the right moment with one of five distinct signals. The fishermen “really, really, really respect the dolphins,” says Mauricio Cantor, a researcher at Dalhousie University who studies the Laguna dolphins. He quips that sometimes they even get protective of the dolphins when the researchers come around.
Cantor is part of a team that has studied the Laguna dolphins since the 1980s. They’ve found that half of the 55 resident dolphins assist the fishermen and that those dolphins are in fact “friendlier.” In other words, they are more social with their fellow dolphins too. The dolphins pass this learned behavior from mother to calf in what is a “pretty clear” example of a social learning “culture,” says Cantor.
But not every scientist loves the idea of animals having culture. The word scares people — they think of culture as exclusively human, says Paul Nachtigall, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii. It all depends on how you define the word, he says, but “it scares me a little too.” And there’s “beautiful” social learning behavior in many other species, like wolves and lions. Even the Laguna dolphins aren’t alone in the world of cool cetacean behavior. Dolphins in the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar help gather shoals for fishermen on occasion. And in Shark Bay, Australia, mama dolphins teach their daughters to hold sponges in their mouths to protect their snouts while foraging in the sand for food.
Even scientists at the U.S. Navy have recruited their own Flippers into its ranks for tasks like locating underwater mines. If dolphins can detect mines, maybe it isn’t so surprising that they’re capable of showing some love to local fishermen.