Tips&TricksDolphins' unexpected dark side: fearsome attacks on manatees puzzle scientists

Dolphins' unexpected dark side: fearsome attacks on manatees puzzle scientists

Three dolphins in the water
Three dolphins in the water
Images source: © Getty Images | Stuart Westmorland
7:32 PM EST, January 25, 2024

These marine mammals have a brain structure most similar to that of humans. Scientists have observed dolphins for many years, and the results have been astonishing. Dolphins are believed to have their language and can distinguish their "names".

Yet, these highly social and empathetic mammals have a darker side. In a scientific journal, PLOS One, an article was published discussing cyclical attacks by dolphins. The research spans a shocking 21 years where several inter-species attacks were documented, including attacks against manatees. But what triggers such behavior? We seek to explain.

Unexplained attacks by dolphins baffle scientists

The documented attacks occurred near Belize, where scientists recorded 10 dolphin attacks on young manatees. The dolphins were found to be aggressive towards both orphaned manatees and those who their mothers accompanied. This behavior isn't new, as the research has been ongoing for 21 years.

"Dolphins don't eat manatees, so it's unclear why they would behave aggressively towards other species." - Explains Dr. Eric Angel Ramos, a scientist with the International Fund for Nature and Sustainable Development. The motive behind the contentious behavior of dolphins is yet to be ascertained.

Previously, dolphins were viewed as gentle and empathetic creatures. However, current scientific observations suggest a different picture. Dolphins can display high levels of aggression, towards each other and other animals. How did the attacks on manatees unfold? It was observed that dolphins attempted to separate the young manatees from their mothers, exhibiting brutally aggressive behavior like ramming, biting and harassing the manatees. Researchers strongly believe these actions were meant to kill.

"Bottlenose dolphins can be unexpectedly aggressive"

Bottlenose dolphins have earned a reputation for their aggressive behavior. They can target both young and adult dolphins as well as other species. Where does this aggression stem from in such ordinarily gentle creatures? It's potentially driven by the fear of losing territory and food supplies. "Bottlenose dolphins demonstrate aggressive behavior towards other species globally" - explains Professor Jeremy Kiszka, a lecturer in biological sciences at Florida International University.

Related content