#13 Curiosity? Symbiosis? The Questions of Inter-Specific Co-Mingling

Though some might be hoping for me to provide a few answers in this blog about the reasons behind inter-specific relationships, I'm afraid all I have are more questions and a bit of well-founded speculation. Over years and years of surveys, aerial observers have happened to see some very interesting things going on out in the offshore ocean waters, things that researchers might have never known about if it weren't for the efforts put forth for the EWS. Of course, one of the great benefits to these ship-strike reduction surveys is that, on the side, they have allowed researchers to collect an enormous amount of data about the marine life in survey waters. We collect data regarding sharks, leatherback turtles, and unusual marine mammals that we might see from our daily track-lines, and with all this observing, we're occasionally witness to some unique situations. Most notably, in January of 2005 the Aquarium's aerial team was lucky enough to be flying over a right whale just as she was in the process of giving birth. Some other events, though not as groundbreaking, certainly give us a quandary to mull about for days, reigniting the instinctual inquisitiveness about the natural world that I believe drove a lot of us to become biologists in the first place.

The first common occurrence, which I briefly spoke of in my last post, is seeing North Atlantic right whales with bottlenose dolphins. Just a couple of days ago Jess and I had a sighting of a single right whale who was breaching over and over, throwing its massive body almost completely out of the water, then surging for a few breaths at the surface before diving down to begin another series of breaches. Interestingly, this whale was inundated by bottlenose dolphins. There were at least twenty dolphins on all sides of the whale, cutting through the water, keeping pace with it, dodging the whale as it crashed back into the sea. Though we do often see dolphins associated with right whales, we don't typically see this many dolphins associated. We wondered if the number of dolphins were somehow affecting the breaching behavior of the whale, or even if the whale's behavior was affecting the number of dolphins surrounding it. The accompanying photo captures a mere microcosm of the number of dolphins that were around the whale. There is a regrettable lack of scientific research about the relationship between North Atlantic right whales and bottlenose dolphins on the calving grounds here in the Southeastern US, but it is a somewhat unique association; up north off of Massachusetts where I study humpback whales in the summertime, it is highly unusual to see any sort of association between humpback whales and the most common dolphin in that area, suggesting that dolphin-large whale interactions aren't ubiquitous. Without much standardized research, we can only speculate that the bottlenose dolphins might be expressing their natural curiosity by consorting with the right whales, or perhaps there's some sort of symbiotic relationship from which both the right whale and the dolphins are benefiting. One can only imagine what it must be like for the right whale, dolphins shooting through the water like bullets, hearing a barrage of dolphin clicks from all sides, and not having much ability to shake them off if wanted.

But dolphins, it seems, aren't the only curious mammals in the sea. In January of 2005, just days after the Aquarium aerial survey team witnessed the right whale giving birth, they witnessed another outstanding situation. We commonly see sea turtles during our aerial surveys as they travel to their nesting sites, but when the team that January stopped to photograph a right whale they ended up seeing an anomalous instance of whale-turtle interaction. A sea turtle was very still (and perhaps a little bewildered) in the water as a seemingly curious right whale appeared to investigate it. The whale brought the tip of its rostrum up repeatedly alongside to the turtle, now and then sinking just to surface right next to it again (see photograph). I can't even begin to suggest what might have been going on in this instance, but the intricate interactions between animals in the natural world are certainly something to behold.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium; Photo 1 - Kelly Slivka; Photo 2: EG# 3301 with turtle - Jessica Taylor



1 comment:

  1. Fantastic post Kelly! It's so rare to get such an intimate look at what is going on under and on the surface of the ocean, it's like you're the fly on the wall and we all have to try and figure out the what we've just seen!

    It just really gets you thinking, and that was exactly what I needed this morning!