Male bottlenose dolphins rely on their childhood friends to help them isolate and mate with females once they reach full maturity. According to a new study in the journal Behavioral Ecology, this need for reliable wingmen later in life drives the behavior of young males, who dedicate much of their time to socializing in order to create lifelong alliances with other individuals.
The study builds upon previous research that showed that adult males tend to form close units consisting of two or three individuals, which help each other to sequester and mate with ovulating females. It has been reported that these alliances are responsible for up to 80 percent of all successful mating attempts, highlighting the importance of male friendship bonds for the survival of the species.
To learn more about how these social ties are initiated, the authors of this latest study examined records of bottlenose dolphin activity relating to a 30-year period in Shark Bay, off the coast of Australia. In doing so, they discovered that males under the age of 10 typically spend much more of their time socializing than females of the same age do, and that both groups form same-sex friendships while rarely mixing with the opposite sex.
Young females, meanwhile, spend only 9 percent of their time fraternizing, instead dedicating 54 percent of their time to foraging for food. The study authors hypothesize that this helps them prepare for adulthood, when the energy demands of pregnancy and lactation will require a continual supply of sustenance.
In contrast, young males were found to spend just 29 percent of their time foraging and 16 percent of their time socializing with groups of other males, forming friendships through play and friendly physical contact. These groups are highly dynamic, changing in composition every 10 minutes or so as they continually break apart and reform in new combinations.
Yet in the midst of this constant flux, each dolphin will typically spend most of its time with a small number of close friends, and by the time they reach adulthood they will have whittled their social circle down to just two or three intimate chums.
This quality over quantity approach is thought to provide the most benefit in terms of reproductive success later in life, indicating how even playful juvenile interactions are in fact part of an intricate mating strategy.