Oceanic Dolphin Societies: Diversity, Complexity, and Conservation

  • Sarah L. MesnickEmail author
  • Lisa T. Ballance
  • Paul R. Wade
  • Karen Pryor
  • Randall R. Reeves
Part of the Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals book series (EBEMM)


Sociality—collective living—confers multiple advantages to oceanic dolphins, including enhanced foraging, predator avoidance, and alloparental care and may be particularly important in oceanic environments where prey is patchy and refuge nonexistent. This chapter covers broad aspects of the social lives of the delphinid community that inhabits the vast eastern tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP). Our approach is socio-ecological: the chapter ties dolphin social structure and mating systems to environmental factors, including oceanographic patterns, distribution of prey, and risk of predation that shape behavior. By merging a top-down look at schools distributed over a variable environment, with a bottom-up look from the perspective of subgroups that comprise schools, a picture of fission–fusion societies emerges. We also consider impacts of the tuna purse seine fishery on the socio-ecology of affected dolphins and discuss likely effects on behavior, learning, social bonds, and population dynamics.

ETP dolphin societies are diverse, spatially and compositionally fluid (pure or mixed species), yet socially complex and structured. They have distinct schooling, reproductive, and sexual characteristics, different patterns of association with other species, and differing degrees of interaction with the tuna purse seine fishery. Individuals may have distinct roles (older, experienced, and post-reproductive females), form stable or at least semi-stable subgroups (female/young, adult male, juvenile), and leave or join the company of others in response to a variety of social and ecological factors, including distribution of prey and risk of predation. In some taxa, individuals school with a small number of companions who may be related and recognize one another (common bottlenose, Tursiops truncatus; Risso’s, Grampus griseus; rough-toothed, Steno bredanensis; and striped dolphins, Stenella coeruleoalba), while in other species school size is larger, membership is fluid, and unrelated individuals abound (pantropical spotted, Stenella attenuata; spinner, Stenella longirostris; and common dolphins, Delphinus delphis). Mating systems are variable among species and sometimes within species, likely reflecting differences in habitat productivity. In some taxa, e.g., eastern spinners (S. l. orientalis), a few sexually mature males may be responsible for most mating, while in other taxa, e.g., “whitebelly” spinners, large relative testes suggest a more “open” mating system where many males in the school engage in copulation.

For pantropical spotted and spinner dolphins in the ETP, the behavior of schooling with large tuna that has led to their ecological success and abundance has also led to their depletion by making them a target of purse seiners. Schooling and sociality, normally adaptive traits, have caused ETP dolphins to become collateral damage in the tuna fishery. Yet dolphins have learned some things from their experiences with purse seiners. Some individuals know how to evade capture or, alternatively, how to await a lowering of the net (“backdown”) to escape. But, behavior that helps to avoid capture can cause high stress, exertion, or social separation and disruption, and these could be factors slowing or inhibiting population recovery. Survival and reproductive success of oceanic dolphins likely depends largely on social and behavioral factors that may also help determine their ability to recover from severe depletion caused by human activities.


Oceanic dolphins Eastern tropical Pacific Ocean Pantropical spotted dolphin Spinner dolphin Social structure Social organization Mating systems Social disruption Resilience Tuna purse seine fishery 



The authors extend their gratitude to the many scientists who have devoted themselves to the oceanic dolphins of the ETP and the “tuna-dolphin issue.” We especially thank Bill Perrin for his extensive knowledge (history, taxonomy, morphology, school structure, reproductive strategies) and Bob Pitman (ecology, evolution) for generously sharing their experience and insights. Both Bill and Bob provided thoughtful review and valuable comments on the manuscript. Thanks to Karin Forney (tagging and tracking), Katie Cramer and Wayne Perryman (school geometry), and Tim Gerrodette (abundance and trends) for sharing their knowledge and unique insights. Thanks to Tim Gerrodette for compiling and analyzing the data and creating the figure on school size. Paul Fiedler generated the beautiful maps of thermocline depth and temperature in the ETP. Paula Olson and Bob Pitman provided photographs of ETP dolphins. We also thank command and crew and fellow observers of the many NOAA and tuna fishing vessels that provided access to these remarkable animals and their oceanic habitat.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah L. Mesnick
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Lisa T. Ballance
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Paul R. Wade
    • 4
  • Karen Pryor
    • 5
  • Randall R. Reeves
    • 6
  1. 1.Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.Scripps Institution of OceanographyUC San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  3. 3.Marine Mammal InstituteOregon State UniversityNewportUSA
  4. 4.Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationSand PointUSA
  5. 5.CharlestownUSA
  6. 6.Okapi Wildlife AssociatesHudsonCanada

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