“Bisexual Rapist Dolphins” and mis-reporting

A few weeks ago a big story about dolphins beset the net. Not just dolphins; rather “bisexual dolphins“, “gay dolphins” and “gang rapist dolphins“. With just the right juxtaposition of sexual taboo and a charismatic animal, the story got the kind of global media coverage that whets a PR consultant’s dreams.

But Richard Connor and his collaborators whose work the story described weren’t cracking open the champagne. They had reported an uncontroversial (but important) finding that bottlenose dolphin societies are “open” — lacking rigidly defined boundaries between group territories. They also found that both males and females were likely to settle as adults quite near to where they were born and raised.

The whole circus arose from a misconstrual of a simple phrase in the paper: “bisexual philopatry.”

As my UNSW colleague and one of the study’s authors, Professor Bill Sherwin, told me at the time, “‘bisexual philopatry’ … when translated out of jargon means “males stay near where they were born, AND females stay near where they were born”  — nothing more or less than that.

But the word ‘bisexual’ was too good to pass up. It reminded journalists of all the unconventional sexual shennaniganizing for which male dolphins have long earned infamy. Male dolphins have been known for over half a century to copulate with one another, as well as to self-stimulate against all manner of objects.

Richard Connor and other colleagues showed, almost 20 years ago that male dolphins work in alliances to cut a female off from the pod and coerce her into mating. It’s a behaviour that forever associated male dolphins with the human idea of ‘gang rape.’

Read full story: Huff Post by Rob Brooks

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