Friendship, Politics and Sex - All under the Sea; UNF Researcher Chronicles How Male Dolphins in St. Johns Bond, Compete

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Soergel

Sex, violence, deep friendships, shifting alliances, old grudges, frolicsome teenagers and lonely old-timers - it turns out there's a whole soap opera being played out under our noses in the St. Johns River.

The stars? The river's 300-plus bottlenose dolphins, a sociable bunch with enough stories for many seasons of drama.

Quincy Gibson knows many of them by name, recognizing them by their distinctive dorsal fins, which she spots on weekly river outings aboard a University of North Florida research boat. The dolphins are hardly shy: On a sunny Wednesday morning, dozens surfaced around the boat within a couple of miles of its departure from a Mayport dock.

They surfed the wake of a passing vessel. They jumped clear out of the water. They poked their noses up. They roughhoused in groups of eight or nine. The reason for many of their actions is simple, Gibson said: "It's fun."

But their shenanigans are also part of a complex social ritual centered on that age-old biological imperative: Getting and having sex.

In her research on the St. Johns, the UNF coastal behavior biologist has seen clear evidence that male dolphins team up with loyal male friends who help them get females, whether by wooing or by force.

The relationship between these "male alliance partners" - bromances, if you will - could last decades or even a lifetime: The friends will spend almost 100 percent of their time together and will often surface side by side in synchronicity.

It goes beyond that, though: Those allied male dolphins will collaborate with other teams to get or defend females - something Gibson says has been documented in just one other place, crystal-clear Shark Bay in Western Australia.

Most of the dolphins leaping and rolling and showing off in front of the UNF boat were playful males, about 9 to 10 years old, just about the age of sexual maturity. Their play, which sometimes includes sex with each other, helps them determine who they'll choose to be their useful, dependable ally for the next few decades.

"It's a big decision on their part," Gibson said. "They want to make sure they choose wisely."

It could also figure out who will be the dominant partner: In Shark Bay at least, one of the males in the alliance is often the one who gets to have most of the sex with females, though he sometimes defers to his partner.

UNF's researchers have identified 14 alliances among male dolphins in the St. Johns. Twelve are pairs, one is a trio, the other is a quartet: Osceola, Choctaw, Timucuan and Geronimo, who are almost always together. A few more alliances could be forming among the youngsters who played around the UNF boat.

Think of the partners as wingmen, Gibson says, ready to do whatever he can to aid his buddy's constant quest - seeing that his genes carry on to the next generation.

'BASICALLY HUMAN'

That shows a remarkable intelligence, what Gibson calls "advanced cognitive ability" organizing the teams, recognizing each other, deciding who is trustworthy and who is not.

Jessica Ermak, 23, on board the research boat with fellow UNF grad student Samantha Nekolny, 24, said she explains all that to her boyfriend. His response: "This is like Facebook for dolphins: Who's talking to who, who gets in fights with who."

Ocean dolphins don't seem to intermingle or procreate with those from the river, Gibson said, even though some of the St. Johns' dolphins do spend time in the Atlantic, hugging the shoreline. Some have been identified as far south as Brevard County.

It is hard for her not to get wrapped up in their lives. Consider the sad story of Poseidon and Pegasus, two aging male allies. …