So long and thanks for all the fish: dolphins deliver ‘gifts’ to humans

Scientists at an Australian resort observed dolphins bringing their own fish ‘gifts’ to the humans who feed them.

Biologists and staff distributing food to bottlenose dolphins at the Tangalooma resort on the Australian island of Moreton, have been offered prey in return, caught by the dolphins themselves. This is the first time such behaviour has ever been seen in a wild group of dolphins.

The first recorded case of this was in July 1998 when a male dolphin called ‘Fred’ offered the humans a dead moray eel. Since then, staff have been given gifts by dolphins a further 22 times, ranging from several types of fish species to eels and even an octopus.

The pod of 12 dolphins fed at Tangalooma are part of a special ‘provisioning program’ that has been run by a group of biologists since 1993. Although the dolphins don’t give gifts on a regular basis, this unusual behaviour appears to have been taken on at some point by the group. Refusing to accept ingratitude from their human recipients, most of the dophins ‘refused’ to accept the gift back and even returned with the gift if it was thrown back in the water.

The scientists believe the gift-giving may be part of the dolphin’s natural ‘play’ behaviour and doesn’t appear to be because they are hoping for more fish in return.  They also believe that individual dolphins may have different reasons for offering their human a gift, such as one female, ‘Shadow’ apprently showing-off to demonstrate her superiority in the group.  Another theory is that they feel sorry for us humans as we appear to be so bad at hunting our own fish prey.

Usually the prey offered was dead but in one case a live pufferfish was given by a young female dolphin called ‘Silhouette’. When the staff member returned the fish to the water and let it swim away, Silhouette caught it and offered it again, refusing to accept it back from her apparently ‘ungrateful’ human recipient. This process was repeated 5 times before Silhouette appeared to lose interest and let the fish swim away.

The study, conducted by Bonnie Holmes and David Neil from the University of Queensland , Australia, is published in the journal Anthrozoos.