Dolphin researchers have recently claimed that dolphins should be considered the second most intelligent animals on earth, second to humans but ahead of chimpanzees. That means that dolphins have a rich and complex social life complete with culture, learning and tradition.
The underwater world is so foreign to us humans that I find it hard to imagine what a dolphin's life must be like. But we share so may of our childrearing practices with land-bound apes that I wondered if we would also have methods in common with dolphins. I'm interested in birth, breastfeeding, weaning, infant transport and any other facts about infant care that I can lay my hands on. So, to start at the beginning, I found some information about how dolphins birth their babies.
After a twelve month gestation, dolphins give birth in the water. The fluids released during labour are attractive to predators and put the mother at risk, so the birth is usually attended by several other dolphins who may well be members of the same family. These doula dolphins are putting themselves at risk by attending the birth, but the calf will also carry their genes, so the practice carries an overall evolutionary advantage.
The baby dolphin's tail is born first so that there is less danger of the calf drowning during the birth process. The removal of the newborn calf from the mother's body may actually be assisted by one female midwife dolphin; the practice has been observed in captivity, and stillborn dolphins with teeth marks in their bodies have been found washed up on beaches.
Following the birth, the umbilical cord snaps easily so the new dolphin's movement is not restricted. Calves are able to swim on their own within minutes of birth and will normally make their own way to the surface to breathe. If this does not happen, some dolphin mothers have been observed moving their calves to the surface.
Dolphins do not just make great midwives for members of their own species; they can actually assist at human births too. A Russian male midwife called Igor Charkovsky has helped pregnant women to give birth underwater in the Black Sea aided by dolphins. The animals are reputedly very gentle with human infants and they grant a sense of calm to both the human mother and her baby. Dolphin-attended waterbirths are also said to occur privately in Hawaii.
The sophistication of dolphin birthing practices has taken my breath away. Come back in a week or so if you would like to know more about how dolphins feed, carry and look after their young.
Photos: The Best Photos