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Dolphins at Play

January 16, 2015

Dolphins’ seemingly adorable antics may not actually be all fun and games to them.



dolphin fight copyright Vincent Janik

These dolphins look like they’re playing, but they’re actually in a serious fight. (© Vincent Janik)

Dolphins at play. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

If you’re lucky enough to witness dolphins leaping out of the water, you might conclude that they’re having an awful lot of fun. But they could also be catching their breath, chasing prey, or even fighting, according to University of St. Andrews marine biologist Vincent Janik.

VINCENT JANIK (University of St. Andrews):

So a lot of these behaviors perhaps look fun to the observer but we mustn’t fall into the anthropomorphic trap where we just kind of go, “it looks like fun to us so therefore the animal must have fun”.


But, he says dolphins do engage in some behaviors that don’t have obvious survival functions, such as using humpback whales as their own personal elevators, attacking porpoises for sport, or playing games with objects on the water.


So it looks looks almost as if they’re passing a ball between each other.


Janik says play contributes to development and learning in young dolphins. He writes about dolphin play in the journal Current Biology. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.