By Brooks Hays
Understanding dolphin social networks will also help scientists study breeding behavior and the spread of disease.
Dolphins aren't online. But they do enjoy social networks -- extensive and complex collections of friends. A new study by scientists at Florida Atlantic University details the manner in which dolphin societies organize themselves. Over a six-year period, researchers at Florida Atlantic's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute used special photo-identification technology to observe and track the interactions between bottlenose dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon.
The lengthy study allowed scientists to plot the social preferences of more than 200 dolphins, illuminating the unique ways dolphins organize themselves and their relationships with others. The study showed that dolphins form into loose groups, and that these groups (and the individuals that make them up) exhibit a fondness for some peers (and their groups) and an aversion to others.
"One of the more unique aspects of our study was the discovery that the physical dimensions of the habitat, the long, narrow lagoon system itself, influenced the spatial and temporal dynamics of dolphin association patterns," Elizabeth Murdoch Titcomb, a researcher biologist at the institute and lead author of the new study, explained in a press release.
"For example, communities that occupy the narrowest stretches of the Indian River Lagoon have the most compact social networks, similar to humans who live in small towns and have fewer people with whom to interact," Titcomb added.
Because dolphins are highly intelligent and communicative creatures, mapping the species' social architecture will also help scientists better understand the flow of information among local populations. The same goes for the study of breeding behavior and the spread of disease.
The results of the study were recently published in the journal Marine Mammal Research.