Smarter Than You Think: Bubble Ring Play of Dolphins

Recent studies suggest that dolphins and porpoises (belonging to the mammalian order of Cetacea) are amongst one of the most intelligent animals around[1], possibly coming in just behind us humans. Lori Marino, one of the world’s leading dolphin experts observed MRI scans carried out on Dolphins recently and have found an impressive brain-to-body ratio. She also observed that the dolphins have an especially large neocortex – the part of the brain used for higher-order thinking and for processing emotional information.[2] This finding is not peculiar and supports existing scholarship that have found dolphins to exhibit human-like skills such as self-recognition, the use of dolphin language, manipulation of tools, etc.

Dolphin @ Play

Dolphin @ Play (via chris-lh)

Perhaps, one of the most fascinating would be the phenomenon of bubble ring play of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Recently, this behaviour has fascinated many around the world as they exhibit the intelligent, amazing and playful nature of dolphins. They would blow a round ring of air through their blowholes and then play with it by pushing it around and swimming through it.

“For long seconds the dolphin regards its creation, from varying aspects and angles, with its vision and sonar. Seemingly making a judgment, the dolphin then quickly pulls a small silver doughnut from the larger structure, which collapses into small bubbles. She then ‘pushes’ the doughnut, which stays just inches ahead of her rostrum, perhaps 20 feet over a period of up to 10 seconds. Then, stopping again, she regards the twisting ring for a last time and bites it–causing it to collapse into a thousand tiny bubbles which head–as they should–for the water’s surface. After a few moments of reflection, she creates another.” [3](Don White, Creator of Project Delphis)

Dolphin Bubbles: An Amazing Behaviour (via SeaWorld Orlando Dolphin Cove)

As seen in the video, the dolphins would observe one another  and subsequently imitate and even improvise their bubble rings. Young dolphins are also observed to have learnt this behaviour from their mothers.[4] Although social learning amongst animals is not uncommon, it appears that dolphins are especially observant animals and seem to catch on behaviour and playful antics quickly, especially when they appear to be entertaining. As suggested by another study, although bottlenose dolphins create and manipulate these underwater bubble rings for play, they actually intentionally monitor the quality of their bubble rings and anticipate their actions during bubble ring play.[5] Suffice to say, dolphins are pretty serious about their play.

This discovery further affirms the fact that dolphins are much more intelligent than we think and they are not indifferent to their surroundings and circumstances. It is important we recognize that as “the scientific evidence on dolphin sensitivities reveals that they are vulnerable to trauma and suffering when forced to live in the confined context of marine parks,” Marino said. However, the paradox of discovery is that it breeds fascination, hence creating a demand. This may potentially lead to more dolphins being captured and held captive. At this point, it is important to also emphasize the importance of protecting dolphins from further human harm.

[1] Into the brains of whales Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 100, Issues 1-2, October 2006, Pages 103-116 Mark Peter Simmonds

[2] Viegas, J. (2010, January 22). Dolphins: Second-Smartest Animals? Retrieved from (accessed on 9 Apr 2010)

[3] White, D. (n.d.). Mystery of the Silver Rings. Retrieved from (accessed on 9 Apr 2010)

[4] Mercado III, E., Murray, S.O., Uyeyama, R.K., Pack, A.A., Herman, L.M., 1998. Memory for recent actions in the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus): repetition of arbitrary behaviours using an abstract rule. Anim. Learn. Behav.26 (2), 210–218.

[5] Bubble ring play of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): Implications for cognition. McCowan, Brenda; Marino, Lori; Vance, Erik; Walke, Leah; Reiss, Diana Journal of Comparative Psychology. Vol 114(1), Mar 2000, 98-106. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.114.1.98

Husbands on demand – Histiostoma Murchiei

Histiostoma Murchiei

Histiostoma Murchiei

Maybe you have heard about sex-switching species – frogs, shrimps, even tropical fish such as coral reef fish. These species manage to switch their genders from either male to female, or female to male. Key motivation behind this behavior is obvious – to maximize breeding. For example, under a environmental condition that, among 10 african reed frogs, there is one male frog and the other nine are female, apparently a bigger reward will be given to one female frog who decides to switch her sex to male. In addition it is also seen as an action of balancing the gender ratio in a group.

However, one species on earth is not jealous of this “gift”, not because there is never a shortage of males, but because they, the females,  create husbands from scratch all by themselves.

Here we are, looking at the extreme haplodiploid case of Histiostoma murchiei – a mite parasitic in the cocoons of earthworms. A lone female lays a certain of eggs to produce few haploid males who will later mate with her “within 3 or 4 days of being laid as eggs” – then die-off.  After that, the female would be able to lay many more eggs which are exclusively diploid, producing around 500 long-lived females – sounds weird to human, but true, these new baby girls are fathered by their dead brothers.

Histiostoma Murchiei is powerful at reproduction as they do not even need to be fertilized to lay eggs – known as parthenogenesis. In fact, despite the “dramatic incest act” of Histiostoma Murchiei,   Parthenogenesis is a perfectly normal trait which is also seen to occur in some other invertebrates such as aphids(greenflies), Daphnia(water fleas) and rotifers. Driven by nature, nurture or both, species gained such ability to successfully reproduce even under harsh circumstances such as the lack of male.

“Cruel” examples, judged from human’s perspective, among species are not hard to notice: Lover-killer – Black WidowHusband-eater – Mantis, Second child-abandoner Giant Panda….. However, we need to try to understand from these species’ point of view, thus reproduction is the big picture, and sacrifices are, sometimes, very necessary.


  3. A MITE PARASITIC IN THE COCOONS OF EARTHWORMS by James H. Oliver, JR. Department of Entomology, University of kansas, lawrence
  4. Wikipedia
  5. 10 craziest Animal behavior,

Don’t eat me, Dad!

Be glad that you are alive and your parents love you, because some other parents don’t. They eat their babies instead. It seems like fathers in male pregnancies may be more inclined to eat their babies if their mothers are ugly. A case in point is the Gulf pipefish (Syngnathus scovelli).

Found in seagrass beds and other densely vegetated shallow grounds, the Gulf Pipefish is a freshwater fish that lives as long as three years, and is the only known species among 24 North American pipefish that enters freshwaters. Seahorse clings to pipefishCharacteristic of the pipefish is the slim body, a snout, and usually only dorsal fins for movement, making it look almost a swimming pencil that bends at the end. Male pregnancy amongst the Gulf pipefish means that fertilization only happens after the female deposits her eggs in the male’s brood pouch. The father then nurtures the embryos in his brood pouch until parturition.

It seems like female beauty in the eyes of Gulf pipefish is size. Smaller females (93-106mm) were consistently discriminated against in favor of larger ones (108-122mm) in a 2010 study by Texas A&M. The study suggests that bigger mothers transfer more eggs each copulation, and more of their babies are stronger and develop fully into parturition. Since males cannot alter their level of investment in a brood, eggs from larger mothers seem to be a more resource-efficient way of parenting.

The sex ratio amongst Gulf pipefish favors females in reproduction, so what happens when a male has already mated with a smaller, thus less attractive, female? He can reduce nutrient flow to the brood to mediate this energetically costly pregnancy, so that siblings compete for survival. This isolation is not so much passive as it is cannibalistic – Sagebakken et. al’s recent study in a similar species found that the father can absorb embryonic nutrients through the brood pouch to his liver and muscle tissue.

Infant-eating amongst animals remains much a controversy. This hypothesis that fathers kill in order to preserve his resources for the next pregnancy in hope of increasing net reproductivity has been criticized by Klug, Lindström, and Mary for being applicable to only some species. After all, it is possible that Daddy kills some babies to modulate their siblings’ competition for resources.


Klug, Hope, Kai L Lindström & Colette M. St. Mary, 2006. Parents Benefit from Eating Offspring: Density-dependent Egg Survivorship Compensates for Filial Cannibalism. Evolution 60(10): 2087-2095.

“Male Pregnancy: The Dark Side,” by Nature. Scientific American, March 17, 2010. URL: (accessed April 8, 2010).

Paczolt, Kimberley A. & Adam G. Jones. Post-copulatory sexual selection and sexual conflict in the evolution of male pregnancy. Nature 464: 401-404.

Sagebakkne, Gry, Ingrid Ahnesjö, Kenyon B. Mobley, Inês Braga Gonçalves & Charlotta Kvarnemo, 2010. Brooding fathers, not siblings, take up nutrients from embryos. Proc. R. Soc. B 277: 971-977.

Syngnathus scovelli.” Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce. URL: (accessed on April 9, 2010).