Dolphins form “boybands”

Boybands are synonymous with woo-ing women with love songs. From N*Sync to Backstreet Boys, even BTS, the harmonies, synchronised dancing and doe-eyes have impressed women the world over. And now, it seems Western Australia’s bottlenose dolphins have a similar idea.

In Shark Bay, about 800km north of Perth, groups of male bottlenose dolphins co-operate to impress fertile females, including synchronising their actions and sounds with each other; essentially, they move and sing together.

And like the always reuniting boybands of the 90’s, the dolphin groups form life-long bonds and co-operation, continuing to work together to attract mates.

The behaviour was noticed by researchers from the University of Western Australia, and is the first time animals other than humans have been spotted co-operating in order to impress mates.

The unique displays have been described in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Lads bust a move and song to impress the ladies

While males of many species will coordinate displays, singing or performing, it’s usually thought to be in competition with each other. It’s rare that animals seem to work together to increase their chances of mating.

Humans, on the other hand, do co-operate in group behaviour during social interactions, which improves group bonding and intimidates others to steer clear. This includes during mating displays. We also use vocal signals to coordinate actions, like marching and dancing.

It seems, in this case at least, dolphin behaviour may be more similar to humans than other animals. Within Shark Bay, groups of up to 14 male dolphins seem to form lifelong alliances, which work together to compete with rival alliances for females.

Within these larger groups, smaller teams of 3 males target single fertile females. When spotted, the males surround the female, swimming and turning in unison to guard and herd her. These groups attempt to either keep the female separate from rival alliances, or try to steal them from the other alliances.

When the researchers submerged microphones near the groups, they also heard the male dolphin teams were synchronising ‘pop’ vocal calls. The scientists recorded 172 instances when allied male dolphins matched their partner’s calls when working together, and would sometimes even produce their calls in sync.

When the male dolphins swam alone, their pop timing and tempo would vary.

They were singing pop songs, people.

When the groups make their pop vocalisations, the females tend to move closer to her guards. The researchers write that the pop might be a threat vocalisation, encouraging the female to stay close.

The vocalisations could also assist the males coordinate their movements through the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. While this effect hasn’t yet been shown in dolphins, the researchers speculate if it did occur it could help improve co-operation between the male dolphins while they need to work together to keep the female close.

One thing the researchers don’t know, however, is ultimately how successful the synchronised popping was for reproductive success. The behaviour has also only been seen at Shark Bay.

“To advertise their alliance relationships and maintain their social bonds, they rely on synchronous movements,” says Bronte Moore, who led the research.

“Male bottlenose dolphins not only synchronise their movements, but also coordinate their vocal behaviour when co-operating together in alliances. This behaviour may help reduce tension between the males in a situation that requires them to co-operate successfully.”

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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