Dolphin males can sometimes form life-long friendships with one another. This type of relationship is known in the field as “male pair bonds.” These bonds are typically formed between two males (sometimes three) of similar age. The males in the pair bond will engage in a range of cooperative activities, like hunting and courting females, and will often spend significant time together.
Having a friend that acts as a wingman can really help males trying to find a female. Male dolphins that form pair bonds with other males are often more successful at attracting and mating with females. Scientists believe the close bond between the males is a sign of strength and stability, which can appeal to females. Sometimes, both males may also join forces to keep one female away from other males so that they may both court the female for an extended period.
In addition, male pair bonds can also help dolphins protect themselves against predators. Having a friend by their side allows dolphins to watch out for each other and provide protection against potential threats. This can help to increase their chances of survival in the wild. Additionally, dolphins that form pair bonds may work together to hunt. This cooperation could allow them to be more successful and provide a benefit in terms of nutrition and survival. Finally, having a companion decreases the amount of stress and may increase oxytocin levels.
More than bros?
Homosexual behavior is a common concept in many bottlenose dolphin populations. In the case of these strong male pair bonds, sexual interactions can occur frequently, and they seem to strengthen the relationship. Some scientists also believe they allow the males to practice with each other before moving on to females. Sometimes, homosexual behavior in dolphins can happen when certain males try to assert dominance over other males.
Although homosexual behavior can occur during bonding periods, the male pair bonds go beyond simple sexual interactions. These bonds focus more on close social interactions and cooperation than sexual activity.
Competition for the same resource
With limited access to resources, lonely dolphins can have difficulty getting the most out of their society. Males often use biting, chasing, jaw clapping, tail slapping, and other forms of aggression to assert their dominance over other males. This resulting hierarchy may influence the less dominant males’ access to resources like food and mating opportunities. Having other males in your team can thus help dolphins thrive in their respective populations.
Sources and further reading
- Connor, Richard C., et al. “Strategic intergroup alliances increase access to a contested resource in male bottlenose dolphins.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119.36 (2022): e2121723119.
- Gerber, Livia, et al. “Social integration influences fitness in allied male dolphins.” Current Biology 32.7 (2022): 1664-1669.
- Gerber, Livia, et al. “Affiliation history and age similarity predict alliance formation in adult male bottlenose dolphins.” Behavioral Ecology 31.2 (2020): 361-370.
- Sommer, Volker, and Paul L. Vasey, eds. Homosexual behaviour in animals: an evolutionary perspective. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.