Dolphins Create Friendships Based on Social Similarities, Much like Humans

A new study finds that dolphins create closer bonds among themselves through shared interests.
Fabienne Lang

We may have more in common with dolphins than we previously believed, including the way we socialize and become close friends.

A recent study on the social habits of dolphins discovers they may form friendships just like us humans.

The research was carried out by a team of international researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Western Australia and Zurich, their findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.


The team observed the habits of groups of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, a World Heritage area in Western Australia. 

The main habit they focused their study on was the dolphins' use of marine sponges as foraging tools. 

Sponges used as foraging and friendship tools

These sponges help certain dolphins, known as "spongers", to find food in deeper water channels. Not all bottlenose dolphins use sponges for foraging, and this study focused solely on male dolphin foragers. 

The team analyzed 37 male dolphins during their nine-year research, between 2007 and 2015, using behavioral, genetic and photographic data. There were 13 "spongers", and 24 non-spongers observed. 

From the data, it was clear that male spongers spent more time with other spongers, rather than with non-spongers. 

Dolphins Create Friendships Based on Social Similarities, Much like Humans
This is a bottlenose dolphin with a sponge in Shark Bay. Source: Simon Allen/ University of Britsol

Co-author of the study, Dr. Simon Allen, explained:

"Foraging with a sponge is a time-consuming and largely solitary activity so it was long thought incompatible with the needs of male dolphins in Shark Bay - to invest time in forming close alliances with other males. This study suggests that, like their female counterparts and indeed like humans, male dolphins form social bonds based on shared interests."

The social closeness formed by tool-using dolphins is clear.

Manuela Bizzozzero, lead author of the study at the University of Zurich, added:

"Male dolphins in Shark Bay exhibit a fascinating social system of nested alliance formation. These strong bonds between males can last for decades and are critical to each male's mating success. We were very excited to discover alliances of spongers, dolphins forming close friendships with others with similar traits."

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