Freddy The Bullied Dolphin's Strange Case Sheds Light On Marine Social Lives

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By IBTimes Staff Reporter | May 2, 2012 2:37 AM EST

Apparently, bullying is a much more of a widespread problem than we thought.

A dolphin swimming in the shallows of the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Orange County, Calif., apparently fled there after being bullied by other dolphins in its pod.

The saga began last week, when the lone dolphin was observed in the Bolsa Chica shallows. Wildlife officials used paddles to herd the creature back toward open water, but an unexpected encounter stopped the dolphin in its tracks.

"We were able to get it to swim into open water Saturday. It was about 100 yards into the harbor and swimming calmly when it was attacked by a couple of very aggressive dolphins," said expert Peter Wallerstein of the nonprofit Marine Animal Rescue group. "It was quite eye-opening to see that kind of aggression."

The dolphin, who has been nicknamed Freddy, zipped under officials' paddles and beneath a bridge to hide itself in the shallow wetlands of Bolsa Chica once again. This is especially odd since that sort of environment isn't naturally appealing to dolphins. Still, Freddy is feeding normally and seems healthy. Officials decided on Monday not to interfere with the animal's movements.

Though he does not appear to have been physically injured, Freddy seems to be afraid of the dolphins he encountered on Saturday. Observers in Bolsa Chica are unclear on what motivated Freddy's flight. Some doubt that this is even a case of bullying, like Dennis Kelly, who teaches marine science at Orange Coast College. "I don't think there's bullying in the dolphin world," he told the L.A. Times. In fact, Freddy's aggressive peers may have been monitoring his movements for other reasons.

"Whenever there's a dolphin this is separated from its fellow dolphins for some reason, the others tend to stick around until they know it's dead, and if it's not they'll hang around," he said. "This can go on for days."

In the dolphin world, bonds between pod members are complex and often very strong. While male-female associates tend to be short-lived, males can form friendships that last for decades. Family ties are also important, as calves tend to hang around their mothers for up to six years. But nothing is set in stone; group composition can change with time. For instance, pods of dolphins tend to be more populous in deeper waters; smaller pods link up with other groups, changing social dynamics entirely.

These complexities make officials reluctant to interfere too much in the case of lonely Freddy. "We're going to observe, and make decisions minute by minute," said Wallerstein. "There's no reason to do anything prematurely." 

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