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Common dolphins. Image: Christopher Swann
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Did you know that dolphins have unique personalities?

We all have personalities, and between the work Christmas party and your family get-together, perhaps you notice them even more at this time of year! It's not so different for dolphins - each dolphin has a different character and role in their pod. 

Dolphins are intelligent and self-aware, and they clearly enjoy being together. They communicate non-stop, call each other by name, and collaborate to catch fish and protect one another.  Some dolphins are shy and reserved, while others are bold and curious. These personality traits sound familiar because we could be talking about people. We all have friends who are outgoing and love to party and others who are more reserved and prefer quiet nights in. Just like us, every dolphin has a unique personality.

Proof of personality

Scientists studying a group of wild bottlenose dolphins living in Italy’s Gulf of Amani have proved that dolphins have personalities.  Their study revealed how familiar individuals responded to new and unexpected things in their environment. The results were crystal clear - some dolphins were consistently bold and curious - they always approached novel objects. Whereas others were unfailingly shy and cautious and gave unknown things a wide berth.

A group of common dolphins surface at speed
All dolphin personalities have a role to play

Group dynamics

Dolphin social lives are complicated. They live in ‘fission-fusion’ communities - fusion is joining and fission is splitting up. In other words, the size and membership of dolphin pods within the community change as dolphins come and go and come back again. Sometimes pairs or small numbers of individuals bond together, joining and leaving pods as one. Our own human societies are likewise built on fission-fusion social dynamics as we move amongst and sometimes combine various groupings such as family, friends, clubs, and work.

Bold and shy

Bottlenose dolphin personalities affect their social groupings. Bold dolphins are the most social and spend almost all their time with others. They play a more active role in the community’s social network than shy dolphins who have fewer social connections. Bold dolphins establish the strongest bonds with others and their friends include both bold and shy dolphins. Bold dolphins naturally manifest togetherness in their communities.

Outgoing, bold dolphins are good at spreading news socially. They share important knowledge by telling their friends about things such as the latest feeding hotspots.

Shy dolphins are less willing to take risks and do not approach unfamiliar things in case they turn out to be life-threatening predators. They are less likely to be injured or die from contact with humans or other risky situations.

Bottlenose dolphins
Some dolphins are bold, others are shy

Better together

All dolphin personalities contribute important attributes to their community. It’s the variety that supports social harmony and unity crucial for everyone’s health, happiness, and survival. Dolphins are better together just like us!

Dolphins’ underwater homes are forever changing and shifting in space and time; the only reliable constant in their lives is one another. All personalities have a role to play as different approaches come into their own in different scenarios.  When food is sparse, it may pay off to risk injury in seeking new prey opportunities rather than going hungry. At other times it may be best to stick to what you know and stay safe. Just as with humans, there isn’t a ‘best’ personality to be – it is the variety in their communities and families that is important.

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About Alison Wood

Ali is WDC's Education coordinator. She also edits our children's magazine, Splash. She previously spent many years coordinating our research and conservation projects around the world. Her favourite species are river dolphins.

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