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Male Dolphins Find Beautiful Sponges To Give To Females As 'Gifts'

“We have only ever seen the females apparently ignoring the male’s advances ... Occasionally, the male ends up tossing the sponge toward the female.”

If you ever need proof that chivalry is alive and well, just take a look at humpback dolphins.

According to a new study released from scientists at the University of Western Australia, male humpback dolphins share a striking similarity to humans: they give gifts as a sign of affection.

For the past seven years, scientists have watched male dolphins carry ornate marine sponges on their heads to deliver to a female in five different observation sites.

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A male humpback dolphin carrying a sea sponge on his head | Simon Allen

As far as the data shows, however, the female dolphins aren’t buying it.

“We have only ever seen the females apparently ignoring the male’s advances,” Simon Allen, a biologist from the study, told The Dodo. “Occasionally, the male ends up tossing the sponge toward the female.”

While it may seem like a classic case of unrequited love from the surface, Allen said most of the possible reasons for this behavior point to the dolphins’ biological need to socialize and mate — but it could also be a form of intimidation.

“There are several explanations for this behavior,” Allen said. “It could be gift giving, it could simply be to attract and hold the female’s attention, it could be a signal of his quality as a mate, or it could be a form of threat to coerce her into mating with him.”

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, told The Dodo that, while people are quick to compare dolphins to humans, highly social behavior like this isn’t that unusual in the animal kingdom.

“It’s not that there are some animals that are like humans, but rather there are several species that share certain complex social traits with humans,” she explained. “Humans actually aren’t all that unique after all.”

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A dolphin crests above water | Simon Allen

While other species of dolphins may use branches or rocks to help forage and socialize, the sponge-giving appears to be unique to male humpback dolphins, Allen said.

Scientists also noticed that males in this dolphin species seem to “catcall” and “flex” to get the attention of females nearby.

“A big male will lie at the water’s surface with his head and tail arched up,” Allen said. “They also sometimes make a trumpet-like noise.”

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A male dolphin posing for females | Simon Allen

Now that the scientists know more about these behaviors, they hope to find out whether the males who gift sponges and flex have a greater chance of mating than others — despite the evidence that the females aren’t keen on the gestures.

In time, Allen said, they may also know if dolphins share another commonality with humans: using a “wingman” to meet new potential partners.

“We hope to obtain further funding so that we can investigate whether or not males pairing up and working together serves the purpose of gaining greater access to females,” Allen said.