Good news: Whale and dolphins are friends

Sometimes, you need to start off your week with a dose of happy news. For instance, this video from the American Museum of Natural History details two recent instances where scientists have observed a whale and several dolphins interacting in ways that are something we might classify as "play".

It's hard to talk about animal behavior without getting too anthropomorphizing, but think about it this way: In both instances, the whale and dolphins did not appear to be competing with other, they did not appear to be fighting, nor were they cooperating in a goal-oriented way. When scientists say "animals are playing" they don't necessarily mean "play" the way human children play, but they do mean behaviors that go beyond simple eat/sleep/defend/breed necessities. Play might be learning. Play might be about forming social bonds that help an individual later on. And however you interpret it, spotting examples of spontaneous, inter-species play in the wild is kind of a big deal.

And now, with those caveats out of the way, I'd like to highlight the top comment on YouTube, by one Bill Kiernan: "We both used to be land animals, isn't that crazy? clearly we need to hang out."

Video Link

Via Charles Q. Choi



  1. I figure with higher mammals like this, just take out the idea of “thinking to yourself about what you are doing” and you more or less get what’s happening.

    You teach kids to talk to themselves while they are playing, so they start getting a narrative going. You can then catch them giving a running story of whatever is going on in the simulation. The difference with these animals is that they don’t have anything like our skills in language and other forms of abstract logic. Remove all that and it’s probably much the same sort of thing.

    1. Except that if you could teach a lion to talk you still couldn’t understand him. Other species are alien to us in deep fundamental ways.

    2. We aren’t mammals plus language. Language goes much deeper. It may not be going too far to say we are embodied language. The ability to find meaning is every bit as necessary for our physical well being as food, water and air. Language is the primary modelling/organising system through which we do this.

    3. “The difference with these animals is that they don’t have anything like our skills in language”

      uh?  really?!  i am pretty sure that whales and dolphins are widely recognized as creatures with language, although we cannot understand it

      “and other forms of abstract logic. ”

      and you know because you can read their minds?

  2. “behaviors that go beyond simple eat/sleep/defend/breed necessities. Play might be learning. Play might be about forming social bonds that help an individual later on”

    Sound like what human kids are doing when they play

  3. Twice I have observed red fox and mule deer of assorted ages in behavior that I could only categorize as play.  These were brief interactions of a minute or so.  In both cases the deer appeared unalarmed, while the foxes bounced or pranced in front of them like playful dogs will do.   The deer appeared mildly curious.  Well, heck, they always do.  In one instance, a yearling deer pranced just a bit.  Eventually they edged around each other and went their respective ways, looking back at each other.  If it had been dogs and horses on a farm I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

  4. The whale is the delivery platform, the dolphin is the surveillance package – in the coming WAR AGAINST THE HUMANS.

  5. Humans are animals. Animals don’t act like humans; humans act like animals. In that dolphins and whales preceded humans in earth’s bio-history, it would be more accurate to say that human play mimics cetacean play. And, in as much as we see putatively amazing examples of inter-specie play (OMG, whales and dolphins!), that’s as common as any YouTube video of chimps playing with kittens.

    As much as we now know about biology, evolution, and behavior, I’m bewildered by the continued us of the term “anthropomorphizing” when discussing “animal” behavior.

    1. Yeah, unfortunately we don’t remember being non-verbal animals and we can’t reconstruct what it would be like to be non-verbal animals (because describing it requires language, creating a contradiction) so we’re kind of stuck working backwards.  Always good to be reminded of this kind of thing though.  Reminds me of watching a sped up video of crabs eating a whale carcass and someone talking about how crazy it looked.  “What’s so special about your frame rate?” was my response.

    2. “I’m bewildered by the continued us of the term “anthropomorphizing” when discussing “animal” behavior.”

      Because us being animals is not enough to bridge the gap. We do not know what it is like to be a bat, to live upside down and see the world through the medium of sound.  We likewise do not know and cannot know what it is like to be a dolphin and to move through the sea and see it with the acoustic lens on our forehead. Or to be a shark and sense the electromagnetic pulses in the muscles of a dying fish. Or a pigeon or other bird who can sense the magnetic lines of the earth and knows the orientation of the sun because it shines through his skull to light up photo receptors in his brain.

      The world divides up the way we divide it up and different species do that differently and in ways that make their experiences unavailable to us.

      1. there are actually two kinds of whales, and they see in different ways. you’re referring to toothed whales and sonar. baleen whales do not have sonar.

  6. Last August while driving along 101 north of Eureka CA, we came upon a whole herd of Elk (probably numbered 40 or so), and four horses just off in a clearing near the road.  One of the horses, and what I believe was a mature female elk were playing with each other… the nine-point buck laying just off to the side behind a large shrub keeping an eye on the “rough housing”.  It was a thing of beauty… and I’ve got the pics to remind me.  

    Thanks for posting.  I’m a long-time lurkergurl… happy to have such a pleasant  reason to make a post.

    Now back to my regularly scheduled mundane monday… sigh.

  7. What’s also so amazing- how were two different species able to communicate with and understand each other in order to coordinate the “game”!?

  8. Pffhah! “Anthropomorphizing”. Overly cautious science people always have to have a disclaimer about anthropomorphizing so they don’t get accused of being a whacko animal lover.

    As said earlier in the comments, whales and dolphins are animals, so are people. 

    Be observant, all mammals engage in play. Just as all mammals present emotions. Dogs show fear, so do humans. Humans cuddle their children, so do hedgehogs. Cats and horses have friendships. People do too.

    So let’s not be afraid to note behavior in our fellow animals without a disclaimer; “I know they’re not human, but these animals engage in behavior similar to behavior humans sometimes engage in. But be assured, I don’t think they’re human, they’re just animals. But it’s really cute.”

  9. “Ohhhhhh … the whales and the dolphins can be friends!
    Oh, the whales and the dolphins can be friends!
    One of them likes to suck up krill,
    The other echolocates with skill,
    But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends!”

  10. I just hope this doesn’t lead to dolphin juggling … but on the other hand, they might well enjoy it.  Wheee!

  11. I think we need to use more “anthropomorphic” sounding words like “play”. Non-human animals are more like us that it is convenient for us to acknowledge.

  12. Maybe someday those scientists will discover the video camera and then could put together a little dolphin/whale interaction documentary that wouldn’t bore the bejeebers out of everyone watching their throw back to the filmstrip days.

    1. hey, if you bought them a water-proof video camera, I bet they would be happy to use it.

      still cameras are a mainstay on boats that track whales because still photography is used by whale scientists to identify a whale by it’s tail fluke.

    1. the wholphin is actually a hybrid of two dolphins, a bottlenose dolphin and a false killer whale, which is actually (surprise) a dolphin.

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