Dolphins are pretty damn smart. Their dynamic, huge brains allow them to have complex conversations, and some scientists think the only thing that’s held back dolphin society from advancing to human levels of sophistication is the animals’ lack of thumbs. And yet, their intelligence doesn’t stop them from looking like complete idiots when it comes to finding love — just like us humans.
In a study recently published in Scientific Reports, a team of Australian and Swiss scientists report that male Australian humpback dolphins, Sousa sahulensis, use both wingmen and gift-giving in their attempts to get mates. For ten years, the researchers, led by Murdoch University cetacean expert Simon Allen, Ph.D., watched the same group of dolphins and concluded that these boys were thirsty as hell.
The researchers speculate that the dolphins that acted as wingmen were either temporary coalitions or fully formed alliances. Either way, it was clear that whatever “guy code” informed their flirtation technique is just as laughable as the one that middle school humans follow. In a group of 63 dolphins swimming around north-west Australia, the scientists observed something they call the “rooster strut”:
“The behavioral posturing by male Sousa is similar to that exhibited by bottlenose dolphins engaged in sexual displays in Shark Bay. The ‘rooster strut,’ for example, is performed by individual males or simultaneously by pairs of male in Shake Bay, where the head is arched above the surface and bobbed up and down, usually in the presence of a female.”
It was an unusual alliance, the researchers write. Typically, the dynamic between male dolphins looking to mate is usually more competitive — which makes sense, seeing as they’re both pursuing the same thing. They think that, when males help each other — either by mirror posturing or by using their movement to control the movement of female dolphins (again, dolphins can be really shady) — it’s rare evidence of a phenomenon the study authors call “cooperative to compete.” The idea is that the dolphins understand that helping each other out will benefit them individually in the long run.
The team’s observations of the male dolphins also revealed that the animals wanted to get their girls something nice — like a fresh marine sponge. Dolphins present marine sponges as “a part of a sexual display rather than, for example, a form of object play or foraging,” the researchers write. Previously, scientists have observed dolphins carrying around and exchanging a variety of items, including branches, rocks, shells, and sea cucumbers, but there’s something especially romantic about marine sponges, because they appear to be exchanged exclusively between adult males and receptive adult females.
Sometimes, after the male dolphins presented the sponge to their would-be bae, they struck a physical pose. Some would flex with their tail and stick their tail above water, which the researchers call the “banana pose.” Occasionally, they’ll even throw in a little “trumpeting” sound from their blowhole.
While all of this sounds like an impressive amount of energy to put into courting a mate, the female dolphins seem to be difficult to please. This process, the researchers note, does not necessarily mean the female dolphin is going to be into the whole exchange.
“It appears the females tend to be ignoring the male and then it kind of ramps up to the point where he’s a bit frustrated and he tosses the sponge in the direction of the female,” Allen told Australia’s ABC News.
“It could be gift-giving in the sense that humans do it — diamond rings and roses and the like - in order to impress a female or to suggest that he is somebody that would be a really wise idea to mate with.”
This paper is the first formal documentation of this sort of sexual display by dolphins, and the use of objects in sexual displays is considered rare in the animal kingdom. In a statement Allen and his team said that the finding presents “an exciting avenue for future research” but for now it remains to be seen why sponges are seen as so sexy in dolphin society.