One of the things that surprised me about the weekend’s DolphinGate flap was that most of the mainstream articles I read were acting as though the paper that they were wildly misinterpreting was providing the first evidence for dolphins engaging in same-sex behaviours. The Huffington Post is a great example of this; here, for example, is the first paragraph of their story:
Dolphins were once humorously alluded to as “gay sharks” on an episode of “Glee,” but a new study suggests that bisexuality and even homosexuality among the marine mammals may be very much a reality.
I’ll admit that this caught me off guard, because I was under the impression that the dolphin same-sex play was a well-established fact. How was everyone reporting this as a big surprise? Yet when I spent a few minutes poking around on Google Scholar, I couldn’t immediately find a good reference for when this was first talked about in the literature.
Thankfully, the internet provides all! Justin Gregg of the Dolphin Communication Project mentioned my piece on Twitter and, seeing an opportunity to get to the bottom (?) of this, I reached out to ask him if he knew when these behaviours were first observed. Justin came through in a big way:
1948! I can’t get at the actual paper (#icanhazpdf?), but the abstract is a gem of scientific understatement:
A summary of observations of captive porpoises is given. Vision and hearing are well-developed, and vocalizations are produced in the form of “jaw-snapping,” whistling, and barking. In captivity the porpoise shows a diurnal sleep cycle. There is a stable dominance hierarchy. Both homosexual and heterosexual behavior has been observed, as well as masturbation in the male. An instance of live birth is described. The play of the porpoise is complex and goes on for long periods. They manifest many and definite fears. The homologies of these types of behavior with that of other mammals is discussed. When various characteristics of porpoise behavior are considered and compared, the animal may be located at many different points in a scale of phylogenetic complexity. Although no information is available on problem-solving in this form, other types of behavior place the porpoise at a place in the developmental scale between the dog and the chimpanzee.
I’ll have to own up to my own foibles here, though, because the conversation may have gone a little down hill after that.
[Insert your own jokes here….]