While the strength of the human-dolphin connection is evident for many familiar with the sea mammal – not to mention fans of the 1996 movie “Flipper” – a Georgetown professor’s studies show that the bond between dolphins may be even moreimportant.
Janet Mann, professor of psychology and biology, co-authored an original study that explores the social and genetic factors involved in reproduction for wild dolphins in Australia.
The results of the study have wide-reaching implications for the interplay between nurture and nature in the fields of biology and psychology.
“The main finding of our recent paper was that social [factors] and genetics interact when it comes to female fitness, but social factors appear to be more important. This may help explain why dolphins are so sociable in the first place,” Mann said.
For Mann, a focus on dolphins stemmed from research she was doing on humans in Australia as part of field work for her Ph.D.
“I then became fascinated with the animals and challenges in studying them, so ended up continuing the research for 23 years,” Mann said.
The study, which Mann wrote with Celine Frere, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It appears online Nov. 1 in the PNAS Early Edition.
The two researchers wrote the study based on reproductive and behavioral data collected in Shark Bay in western Australia.
“Social experience and genes interact in complex ways, but the social effects are stronger,” Mann said in a Nov. 1 university press release.
ann and Frere looked at the life histories of 52 female dolphins, finding that social ties had a stronger impact on positive reproduction efforts than did familial ties.
“Dolphins have long-term bonds that last for decades. It is likely females and their calves learn from each other about where to hunt or avoid predators such as tiger sharks. Females may also protect each other and their calves from shark attack,” Mann said in the release.
“Female reproduction, calf development, social bonds and foraging ecology are my main areas of interest. Specifically, I am interested in what factors contribute to calf survival and female reproduction,” Mann said to THE HOYA.
In a study published earlier this year the two researchers found that dolphins can be susceptible to inbreeding, reducing reproductive output.
A BBC2 documentary about Mann’s work, “Dolphins of Shark Bay,” premiered in the UK on Nov. 2, and will air on the Discovery Channel next year.