After humans, dolphins are the brainiest animals on the planet. Why dolphins have such big brains is one of the big questions in science. For the past three decades, a pristine bay on the west coast of Australia has been yeilding the answers. Shark Bay is a marine biologist's paradise, boasting the largest seagrass beds in the world and teeming with wildlife, including a population of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphins that live in a society whose complexity has astonished the scientists studying them. Many animals form alliances or coalitions in competition for food or mates, but The Dolphin Alliance Project discovered that the Shark Bay dolphins form three levels of nested alliances; thats right, alliances of alliances of alliances. There is only one other species that does that: Homo sapiens. Just as humans cooperate with friends against foes, from villages to nation states, the dolphins negotiate a labyrinth of friends, rivals, rival friends and friendly rivals in a system so complex that the word "politics" must be invoked. It is no coincidence that humans and dolphins have the biggest brains and the most complex societies. Social complexity is the raison d'etre of such large brains. In Shark Bay, we now have a chance to study another intelligence that is strikingly similar to our own, but one that lives in a habitat so different they might as well live on another planet.
The Dolphin Alliance Project team is poised to take full advantage of this opportunity. We will bring new technology to conduct a ten-year coordinated study on all facets of the dolphins' behavior, communication and ecology. The Dolphin Decade, commencing in 2020, we will map out the alliance relationships of well over 100 male dolphins, using DNA to discover fathers and other relatives, hydrophone arrays to learn each male's signature whistle (the equivalent of a name) and how they communicate when coordinating alliance and feeding behavior. Drones will allow us to view social interactions in detail never before possible and to measure each males' body size and condition. Remarkably, individual dolphins differ in what they eat and how they catch their prey. Sophisticated new sonars will allow us to map and observe the dolphins' habitat and fish prey to see how those factors impact their alliance behavior. Our simultaneous studies we enable a fully integrated understanding of the dolphins' complex alliances and social intelligence. Nothing like this has ever been attempted on any dolphin population. The Dolphin Decade is an enormously ambitious project, an ambition that will be matched by the payoffs, both in our understanding of dolphins and ourselves. How human are the dolphins? Do the conflicts that plague human society also impact the dolphins? Have the dolphins found cooperative solutions to conflicts that can help humans? We will expect the unexpected as we explore an alien intelligence right here on earth.
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