The ocean is choc-a-block full of random acts of kindness these days. Recently we’ve heard about sperm whales adopting a deformed bottlenose dolphin, a dolphin that sought aid from a friendly diver, and now the latest offering; “altruistic” dolphins that help a lost seal find its way back home (see above video).
It’s hard to tell from this video exactly what transpired since it’s a mashup of clips. The narrator seems fairly confident that the dolphins were keen to coax the little seal to safety, since he remarks at 1:30 that “with gentle nudges, the dolphins seem to be encouraging the young seal to swim.” On closer inspection, I do not see any “nudging” by the dolphins (they don’t touch the seal), but I do see at least one dolphin focusing his attention on the genital region of the seal – more than likely engaging in a behavior that scientists call “genital-buzzing.” It’s observed fairly frequently in dolphins, and its function is unknown. Here’s one description of genital-buzzing from this scientific article:
During courtship, discipline of conspecifics, or the pursuit/herding of sharks, the predominant vocalization produced is the “buzz” or “genital buzz.” This vocalization is a low frequency, high-repetition rate echolocation train that is directed towards the genital or mid-section of a conspecific, often by a male to a receptive female during courtship behavior.
So genital buzzing happens when dolphins are fighting with each other (perhaps buzzes directed at the genitals hurt), when chasing away predators (again, maybe the buzzing is uncomfortable), or when courting and getting ready to mate (perhaps the buzzing stimulates the potential mate, or is a way to ascertain if the female is ovulating). It’s hard to know what it might mean when a dolphin buzzes a seal’s genitals. In any event, it’s not entirely clear what was happening in this video. I suggest the following three possible explanations as to what was going through the dolphins’ heads in the above clip:
“Doris, come quick! This poor seal needs our help.”
“You’re right Tim – let’s lead him to safety.”
“Poor little guy. I hope he makes it!”
“Hey Doris, check out this floating meat-log. What do you think it is?”
“Wow Tim, that thing’s ugly! Well, I just buzzed its genitals and colorectal area, and whatever it is it’s not a dolphin.”
“Duh-doy – I knew that already! In any event, I wouldn’t mate with it.”
“This juvenile Mirounga angustirostris is an ideal candidate for our genetic-hybridization program. Let’s bring it back to the laboratory and harvest its organs.”
“Doris you fool, can’t you see we’re being filmed by a human?”
“Drat! And he’s using an SD camera no less! Couldn’t he afford a GoPro? Anyhow, we’ll have to come back for the specimen when the coast is clear.”
“Wait, let me buzz this seal’s genitals real quick – that really confuses these so called human ‘scientists.’”
Tip: For more on altruistic behavior in dolphins and other animals, you’ll find a decent intro over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Altruistic behavior is fairly widespread in the animal kingdom, and has had scientists thinking about how and why it evolved since Darwin first discussed the issue in On the Origin of Species.