Object carrying as socio-sexual display in an aquatic mammal

A.R Martin, V.M.F da Silva, P Rothery

Abstract

Amazon river dolphins or botos (Inia geoffrensis Blainville) were observed carrying objects in 221 social groups over a 3-year study period. Sticks, branches and clumps of grass were taken from the water surface and often repeatedly thrashed or thrown. Lumps of hard clay were collected from the river bed and held in the mouth while the carrier rose slowly above the surface and submerged again. Carriers were predominantly adult males and less often subadult males. Adult females and young dolphins rarely carried objects. Groups of dolphins in which object carrying occurred were differentially large and comprised a greater proportion of adult males and adult females. Aggression, mostly between adult males, was significantly associated with object carrying. The behaviour occurred year-round, with peaks in March and July. A plausible explanation of the results is that object carrying by adult males is aimed at females and is stimulated by the number of females in the group, while aggression is targeted at adult males and is stimulated by object carrying in the group. We infer that object carrying in this sexually dimorphic species is socio-sexual display. It is either of ancient origin or has evolved independently in several geographically isolated populations.

Footnotes

    • Received February 4, 2008.
    • Accepted February 28, 2008.
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