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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Overlap between Information Gained from Complementary and Comparative Studies of Captive and Wild Dolphins


Dolphin behavior has been observed in both captive and wild settings for years. Comparisons of captive and wild aquatic mammals have proven difficult because of limitations placed on observers in both arenas; still research conducted in each setting provides details often unavailable from the other environment. For example, internal body states (e.g., hormone levels) that might effect the expression of certain behaviors cannot readily be measured from wild dolphins; however, they can be routinely documented during husbandry behaviors. Conversely, detailed documentation of dolphin travel patterns is more readily available from long-term studies of wild dolphins; and while travel patterns are not applicable for study from captive individuals, observation of movement patterns within a pool can be examined to provide insight into an individual’s behavior or inter-individual interactions. Long-term observations from three captive and three wild dolphins study populations are presented comparatively to illustrate how work on groups in each setting can complement one another. Additionally, data from a survey of trainers (50 surveys distributed with 17 completed surveys received) suggests that dolphin trainers interpreted several behaviors in ways that were consistent with observations of wild dolphins. For example, tail slapping was reported mainly as irritation(45.5%) or frustration (22.7%), but was also suggested to occur in play (31.8%). Pectoral fin rubs were used in appeasement (15.4%), comfort (7.7%), and affection (26.9%) more so than in sexual(7.7%) contexts or not at all (7.7%). Jaw claps, hitting, biting, chasing and ramming were observed in aggressive contexts in both captivity and the wild. More significantly, there were no consistent differences between wild and captive dolphins reported by surveyed trainers. The author’s ongoing research program merges advantages from both environments to facilitate a more thorough understanding of dolphin communication and society.

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