Dolphin

Males resort to all sorts of desperate measures when fertile females are scarce, including banding together to guard a potential mate. Now, researchers have discovered that such bands of bottlenose dolphins may coordinate their actions with unique “popping” calls—the first evidence that animals other than humans can synchronize themselves using vocal signals.Dolphin ‘gangs’ protect their females by vocalizing in sync.

Humans often use vocal signals to coordinate actions, like marching and dancing, that reinforce unity and intimidate outside groups. The synchronized displays of other animals—like fireflies that light up at the same time—are thought to be competitive, showing off which male is the sexiest, rather than cooperative.

In Shark Bay, off the coast Western Australia 800 kilometers north of Perth, groups of up to 14 male dolphins form lifelong alliances. Together, subsets of three keep close tabs on potential female mates, swimming, turning, and surfacing in unison to guard and herd them—one female at a time. Scientists watching this behavior noticed these males often emit a unique “popping” call, making series of two to 49 very short sounds, 10 per second, over and over.

Individual dolphin popping
Multiple dolphins popping

The scientists dragged four underwater microphones behind a motorboat and recorded 172 instances in which multiple males were “popping” together (above). When the males pop alone, their timing and tempo varies. But when they pop together, they do it at the same time and at the same rate, suggesting they are using the sounds to enhance their cooperation, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

This synchronized popping may be a threat, as it tends to make the female dolphin move closer to her male guards. But more importantly, the researchers say, it may help reinforce that the males need to act—and talk—as one to ensure they get their gal.