Captive & Wild Dolphins – A Comparison

A Brief History

Over 35 Species of cetacean have been maintained in artificial environments since the early 1860’s.  While descriptions of specific behaviors were first provided by Townsend (1914), the majority of information collected on captive dolphins has focused on collection, transport, husbandry and medicine (Defran & Pryor, 1980). One would also expect to find a rich literature on species-typical or comparative behaviors of captive cetaceans; however, the published accounts for this topic are limited in number. Recent behavioral studies on dolphins have largely been weighted towards free-ranging individuals and groups: usually, observations were confined to surface follows or documentation of general behavioral activities (e.g., Würsig & Würsig, 1979; Wells et al., 1987; Norris et al., 1994). However, detailed documentation on the association patterns of male dolphins with other males and with females was the focus of two recent studies (for bottlenose dolphins), Connor, 1990; for Hawaiian spinner dolphins, Östman, 1994). For both the Hawaiian spinner dolphins (Östman, 1994) and bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay (Connor, 1990), male-male associations were stronger than most other bonds observed. Males form coalitions of two to three individuals and at times form multilevel associations between coalitions when competing for females (Connor, 1990). With more long-term comprehensive studies on dolphin social behavior, life strategy patterns, and comparisons with terrestrial social animals, will become apparent.


Systematic observations of a captive, social group of dolphins would provide valuable information on specific behavioral events among associates as related to age/sex classes, group dynamics, or individual interactions. Conversely, no systematic or quantifiable information gathered from field studies of dolphin social behavior has been used for understanding the behavior and interactions of captive delphinids. Comparisons of data collected on a social group of captive dolphins with data collected on free-ranging delphinids would elucidate details of dolphin associations, behavioral interactions and social life. Observations of captives can yield lengthy, detailed records of interactions among individuals and within the group (Gales & Waples, 1993; Nelson & Lien, 1994; Renjun et al., 1994). Data from free-ranging groups will provide information on the behaviors, social relationships, individual association types and groupings of dolphins in their natural setting.  A comparative study of the individual associations, specific behaviors and social groups observed in both captive and free-ranging dolphins will provide a better understanding of delphinid behavioral activity as related to both captive and natural settings, provide comparative data on group dynamics and individual roles within the different group types, and yield clues for the development of programs for environmental enhancement within the captive facility (Markowiz, 1990).  Within the past two decades, several dolphinaria (e.g., KDN, Sweden; Shedd Aquarium, Chicago IL, USA; ZD, Germany) have begun to house several dolphins together in larger pools:  a trend also apparent in zoo’s and wild animal parks (Inglis & Shepherd, 1990; Gorman, 1994).  This restructuring is a dedicated effort to create breeding groups and expand the facility with more pool, giving more options to manipulate the social setting of the dolphins present (Mats Amundin, KDN, pers. commn., 1995).  Well adjusted, healthy, happy dolphins are important to a successful breeding program (Ralls, 1989; Ridgway et al., 1989; Markowitz, 1990); and providing an atmosphere that is behaviorally and socially stimulating, as well as physically large enough, will yield successful results in the breeding of captive dolphins (Ridgway et al., 1989; Markowitz, 1990).  Comparable data sets between captive and free-ranging populations will provide invaluable information on suitable characteristics and parameters of the captive environment with regard to approximations of the free-ranging social system of delphinids.

In 2002, Dudzinski began studying dolphins at the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences, Roatan, Honduras. With Kristy Beard, Dudzinski began studying t he dolphins at Dolphin Encounters, Nassau, The Bahamas in 2006. We employ the same protocol for studying these two groups of captive dolphins as we do studying the wild dolphin populations. Our efforts are beginning to yield results in these comparative studies. Manuscript and reports are available from the DCP publications page, including the following:

Dudzinski, K.M., Gregg, J.D., Paulos, R.D., Kuczaj, S.A. (2010) A comparison of pectoral fin contact behaviour for three distinct dolphin populations. Behavioural Processes, 84:559–567 (please contact DCP to receive a PDF)