Dolphins on Queensland’s Cooloola Coast have reacted to the decline of human visitors to the once-popular tourist spot by lavishing those who do come with gifts.
One 29-year-old male humpback dolphin, “Mystique”, was already known for occasionally bringing items to shore but in recent weeks has become dramatically more generous.
Mystique has taken to bringing the volunteers at Barnacles Café and Dolphin Feeding centre an array of items every day, including timber, shells, wood, and bottles.
Dolphin feeding volunteer Lyn McPherson told the ABC that Mystique’s activity has increased while the dolphin feeding centre was closed to tourists.
“(He) brings in objects on his rostrum, or beak, and then he carefully presents them to us,” she said. “What we have to do is give him a fish in return… We haven't trained him, but he has trained us to do this. We swear he has a collection waiting to bring to us… Sometimes he will bring 10, one at a time, and he will line them up as he has to get fish.”
Locals say other humpback dolphins are also bringing gifts, such as sponges, barnacle-covered bottles and fragments of coral to the feeding centre.
“Nothing surprises me with dolphins and their behaviour anymore,” Barry McGovern, a dolphin expert and PhD student at University of Queensland, told 7News.
“They do everything - they use tools, they have culture, they have something similar to names in signature whistles. In all likelihood, they probably don’t miss humans per se…They probably miss a free meal and the routine,” he said.
In 2017 researchers at the University of Western Australia captured footage of male humpback dolphins presenting females with large marine sponges as gifts.
Scientists from UWA’s School of Biological Sciences, the University of Zurich and Murdoch University conducted a decade of boat-based research on coastal dolphins across north-western Australia and found, for the first time, the adult male humpback dolphins gave marine sponges to females, and performed visual and acoustic displays, to impress potential mates.
Lead author Dr Simon Allen from UWA’s School of Biological Sciences said the findings suggested an as yet unrecognised level of social complexity in humpback dolphins.
“We were at first perplexed to witness these intriguing behavioural displays by male humpback dolphins, but as we undertook successive field trips over the years, the evidence mounted… Here we have some of the most socially complex animals on the planet using sponges, not as a foraging tool, but as a gift,” he said.