A new study reveals that dolphins have intricate and dynamic social relationships just like humans.

Dolphins are cetaceans—mammals that live in water bodies—found worldwide. Scientists from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University conducted a study on bottlenose dolphins for over six years and found that dolphins exhibit social networking patterns that are more complex than previously thought.

The study was done along the Indian River Lagoon to understand the social behavior of the marine mammals. Over the study period, the researchers were able to observe the networking patterns of about 200 individual dolphins. The researchers also learned how the social preference of the dolphins is influenced by their habitat.

The region in focus is a 156-mile-long estuary that is located on Florida's east coast. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also designated the lagoon as an "Estuary of National Significance."

In the same way that humans mingle and interact with friends while avoiding others whom they do not like, dolphins also prefer the company of their friends but do not associate with other dolphins they dislike, the researchers observed.

The team also found that the dolphins in the lagoon formed groups and also occupied certain areas of the water body. One of the most important aspects of the study, the researchers said, was the discovery of how habitat influenced the social dynamics of the dolphins.

"For example, communities that occupy the narrowest stretches of the Indian River Lagoon have the most compact social networks, similar to humans who live in small towns and have fewer people with whom to interact," said Elizabeth Murdoch Titcomb, a research biologist at HBOI.

Scientists suggest that the latest study holds significance as it provides new insight into the social behavior of the dolphins and how this social behavior is related to the environment of the marine mammals.

With the help of such information on animal behavior, wildlife managers can better understand the breeding patterns of the dolphins and the way culture or information is shared in dolphin groups. The study will also help scientists gain an understanding of the spread of diseases among dolphins.

The study is published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Photo: Jay Ebberly | Flickr

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