Due to their high intelligence, dolphins are one of the most intriguing yet barely understood creatures of the ocean. The ability to study them is made even more complicated by the fact that they live in the water, thus limiting researchers’ chances to observe their many behaviors. It is only when we keep them in captivity (which limits the range of study to less natural behavior) or when they come to us at the shore of our land-locked habitat that we can learn new things about this mysterious species. A new study is focusing on a particular behavior that seems to suggest that dolphins are much more inclusive in who they consider friends than we may have suspected.
Dolphins have been recorded as giving gifts to human beings in the form of the sea life that serves as their food. This is not an isolated occurrence, but one that, while known for some time, has only recently been the subject of intensive research. At one particular Australian resort, 23 of these events have been recorded in recent years and prompted an in-depth examination of the phenomenon.
The main interaction between humans and dolphins at the resort is an environmental program whereby the staff at the resort wades out into the water each evening to feed the local dolphins. Sometimes, the dolphins give back. Staff have received eels, squids and other sea life in return for their kindness. While domesticated animals are seen doing this all the time (if you own a cat, you probably have received more than one “gift”), the occurrence of this in the wild is much lower and sharing between different species is almost unheard of.
There are several different theories as to why this happens. One says that the dolphins are participating in exchange, giving back some of the food they’ve received over the years. Another says that the dolphins view humans as being incompetent hunters and are thus trying to help us out by providing us with a decent meal. The most popular theory states that the dolphins offer food in order to engage in play with humans.
Such activity is one more proof of the presence of culture within dolphin society, culture being one of the defining characteristics of sentience. It is interesting that these dolphins consider human beings as viable family members, not noticing the difference in species but only that there is a reciprocal relationship at work. Perhaps we could learn something from these creatures about looking past the surface and helping others, no matter how different?