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By Eva Gruber
Dolphins are one of the most intelligent species on the planet, and this fact has been long known as humans have observed them engaging in curious and playful activities over the centuries. Being able to keep them in captivity, as well as observe them in the wild underwater, has revealed an even more diverse variety of behaviors that expand our understanding of their social intelligence.
Many dolphin species are also highly sexual species, engaging in behaviors that are reminiscent of our own sexual behaviors – behaviors that exhibit sexuality that is not strictly tied to reproduction. In fact, dolphins are one of a handful of species that have been observed engaging in sexual behavior for pleasure.
And along with humans, the sexuality of dolphins seems to be a fluid and playful thing, with dolphins engaging in various combinations including same-sex couplings. Marine biologists from the Mandurah Dolphin Research Project at Murdoch University in Western Australia began to observe numbers of male dolphins congregating and engaging in sexual behavior at the end of the mating season.
Krista Nicholson, a researcher from Murdoch University described it as a group consisting mostly of adult males that then organized themselves into four sub-groups. Socio-sexual behaviors observed in these sub-groups included mounting as well as direct genital contact between individuals. Nicholson added that it is thought that this kind of behavior – while obviously lacking any reproductive benefit – may serve to strengthen bonds between male dolphins, as well as establish social hierarchies and alliances within their social groups.
Also observed by the researchers was inter-specific sexual interactions – that is, sexual behavior between dolphins of other species.
Using sexual behavior as a type of bonding and stress-releasing behavior is not unusual in the animal kingdom among animals that use sex beyond reproduction. Bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) are another species that uses sex in this manner. Researchers noted that this socio-sexual behavior is far more common between males than it is between females, at least in Western Australia.
In the end, as with anything in biology, this behavior may not make any sense unless it is looked at through the lens of evolution. “Gay dolphin sex” may sound sensational, but the behavior these dolphins are engaging in has actual evolutionary benefits. Strengthening social bonds, as well as establishing alliances, likely benefit the male dolphin later when attempting matings with females. It also contributes to the social cohesion of the pod as a whole, making for stronger relationships. This may have serious consequences, as the Mandurah coastal dolphins are under increasing pressure as more boat traffic, increasing pollution, and new coastal construction in the area degrades their natural habitat significantly.