Dolphins Are Amazing, Part 5,423: They Help These Fishermen Catch Fish

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A small group of dolphins in Brazil have learned to steer fish into humans' nets, but no one knows why.dolphinmap.jpg

Let's cut to the chase here: although whales are majestic, dolphins are the best. I love that they work in teams and that they develop something like "culture," in which specific groups of dolphins behave idiosyncratically in ways that are intelligent.

Here's the latest case-in-point. Down in Brazil, a group of dolphins aid the local fishermen! This has been going on for generations, despite unclear benefits for the marine mammals. Researchers looked at the practice in a new paper in the journal Biology Letters entitled, "The structure of a bottlenose dolphin society is coupled to a unique foraging cooperation with artisanal fishermen."

For the record, this seems like the ultimate hipster foodie trump card: "My fish was caught by artisanal Brazilian fishermen with the help of a unique group of... intelligent dolphins." Here's how ScienceNow describes the situation:

Every autumn, lucky visitors to Laguna, Brazil, which is situated around a narrow lagoon on the Atlantic Ocean, catch an odd sight. Here, resident bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) frequently turn sheepdog, herding schools of small, silver fish called mullets toward the shore--and, it turns out, toward lines of wading fishers. As soon as the dolphins get close to their human companions, they give the signal, slapping their heads or tails against the surf. In an instant, the fishers cast their nets, catching dozens of frenzied mullet.

Even more intriguingly, only a subgroup of the 50 or so dolphins have picked up the human habit. A third help out, while the rest steer clear of the people. Why do some dolphins help out? And why do others avoid the behavior?

To figure that out, the researchers spent two years watching the dolphins in the water, seeing which animals hung out together and for how long. They found that the animals that the social network of dolphins that help humans spends more time together and more tightly associated than the other animals. They still don't know why this is or how precisely younger dolphins figure out what to do, but the fact that there are identifiable characteristics to the human-helping social network is fascinating. In the graph below, the human helpers are the white circles.

dolphin-social-networks.jpg


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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