Dolphins are notoriously quick learners. Until our genus surpassed them, dolphins were probably the largest brained and, presumably, the most intelligent creatures on the planet.

I had a much-needed get-together with a longtime friend over the weekend—via Zoom, of course, during these coronavirus times and after at least five consecutive days of rising cases in the United States. My friend and I have known each other since high school, so we have a lot of history together; and throughout all the years, we’ve continued to share a love of animals, the natural world and travel.

The visit with her, though, wasn’t quite the same as being there in person, which I’m sure you all know and have experienced firsthand. Two screens between us and “air hugs” just don’t make it for the long haul.

So, I’ve been thinking about friendships for the past few days and wondering what makes them tick. And, as usual, nature provides some insight into that—in the form of dolphins.

Dolphins have been known to demonstrate empathy, grief, joy, innovation, playfulness, problem-solving, self-awareness and teaching skills. ©NOAA

Recently, an international team of researchers from the University of Bristol in England, the University of Zurich in Switzerland and The University of Western Australia found that when it comes to making friends, dolphins are very much like us and form close bonds with other dolphins who share a common interest.

Dolphin solidarity spurred by “sponging”

Every few years, it seems, we discover more and more about the intelligence of dolphins. Seven years ago, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America showed that bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Scotland demonstrated that they used names for each other, much as we do. In a related study that dates back to the same time, it was also discovered that they can remember those names for decades.

But in Australia’s Shark Bay, a World Heritage area, there is even a more special group of bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins here have been observed using marine sponges as foraging tools. This learned technique, passed down from generation to generation, is taught by mothers to calves and helps the “spongers,” as the ones who do it are called, find food in deep water.

Scientists think that as bottlenose dolphins forage for fish, applying sponges protects their beaks from rocks and broken chunks of coral that litter the seafloor. ©Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA

Researchers used behavioral, genetic and photographic data collected from 124 male dolphins during the winter months in Shark Bay over nine years (from 2007 to 2015) to analyze a subset of 37 male dolphins, comprising 13 spongers and 24 nonspongers. They found that the male spongers spent more time associating with other male spongers than they did with nonspongers. Furthermore, these bonds were being based on similar foraging techniques and not relatedness or other factors.

Since foraging with a sponge is a time-consuming and largely solitary activity, investing time in forming close alliances was long thought incompatible with the needs of male dolphins in Shark Bay. But the study findings suggest that—like their female counterparts and, indeed, like humans—male dolphins form social bonds based on shared interests.

Dolphin/human friendships fissure in a pandemic

Today, people in Dingle, in County Kerry in Ireland, are wondering if a playful bottlenose dolphin called Fungie is lonely for the loss of human interaction due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pound for pound, relative to body size, a dolphin brain is still among the largest in the animal kingdom. ©NOAA

For more than 37 years, Fungie—who was first sighted off the Dingle coast in 1983 and was added to the Guinness Book of World Records last year as the “longest-lived solitary dolphin”—has spent his days swimming with the local boats carrying tourists and playing with divers, surfers and swimmers. In May 2020, however, locals reported that he appeared to be “out of sorts.”

Unfortunately, as of now, we don’t know if Fungie truly misses seeing us. Does he consider humans his true friends? Such rumors about animals in times of human crisis probably say more about us than about dolphins.

When we’re feeling stressed, such animal stories can be an irresistible salve. As we try to come to grips with a pandemic, a collapsing economy and sudden isolation, it’s tempting to hold onto the idea that animals and nature somehow miss us during this boiling point, giving us a sense of meaning and purpose—that what we’re going through is for a reason. The need to seek out things that make us feel good about ourselves may be exacerbated right now.

Dolphins have something similar to names in their use of signature whistles. It seems likely to me, then, that they’d make their own dolphin friends. ©Zest-pk, flickr

While cetaceans have culture, use tools and have something similar to names in signature whistles, in all likelihood they probably don’t miss humans per se. Fungie might just be missing the routine.

COVID seeps into cetacean societies

Unfortunately, it appears from a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their July 2020 newsletter that coronaviruses have been detected in bottlenose dolphins in the United States.

All I can do is hope that it doesn’t curtail their get-togethers and cause them to resort to air hugs.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,