On 23 occasions over the past several years, wild dolphins were observed giving gifts to humans at the Tangalooma Island Resort in Australia. The gifts included eels, tuna, squid, an octopus and an assortment of many other types of different fin fish. While these gifts might not be your choice for a gift to find underneath your Christmas tree, some of the items that were offered to humans are highly valued food sources for cetaceans such as dolphins.
A report describing this rare form of food sharing behavior in wild dolphins was published on December 4, 2012 in the journal Anthrozoös: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals.
Food sharing is a fairly common behavior among animals of the same species, but it is a much rarer phenomenon between animals that are from different species. Perhaps one of the best known examples of inter-species food sharing occurs in domesticated cats that have a tendency to drop prey items at their owner’s feet. Inter-species food sharing in wild animal populations has not been widely documented in the scientific literature.
There has been one observation of inter-species food sharing in false killer whales, a member of the dolphin family (Delphinidae). During an encounter that National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin had in Hawaii, a false killer whale swam up to the photographer, released a large mahi mahi from its mouth and backed away. The photographer accepted the gift then, returned the fish to the whale. I suppose that is proper etiquette if a large cetacean offers you food while you’re in the water with it.
The wild dolphins that were observed giving gifts to human in Australia were regular visitors to a provisioning program at the Tangalooma Island Resort. The provisioning program was started in 1992, and each evening staff members from the resort wade into the ocean to feed the wild dolphins fish. The program is regulated by a permit issued by the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management.
In 1998, an adult male dolphin named Fred was observed giving a dead moray eel to one of the staff members. Since that first occurrence of gift giving behavior among the Tangalooma dolphins, staff members have documented an additional 22 other events.
Dolphins of diverse ages and both sexes engaged in the gift-giving behavior, and scientists are not entirely sure of what is motivating their behavior. Food sharing in animals is often motivated by an urge to play, a desire to reciprocate food sharing or the belief that the recipient of the food is an incompetent hunter. Based on their detailed observations, the scientists think that gift giving among the wild dolphins at the Tangalooma Island Resort was likely a form of play behavior.
The research was published by Bonnie Holmes and David Neil. They are scientists affiliated with the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Staff at the Tangalooma Island Resort assisted in collecting the data for the study.