A researcher from The University of Western Australia will use a prestigious Swiss fellowship grant of nearly $700,000 to study the vocal behaviour of bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay.
Dr Stephanie King, from UWA’s School of Animal Biology, was one of six new fellows from a field of 411 researchers worldwide to be awarded a 2015 Society in Science – The Branco Weiss Fellowship.
Dr King will use the fellowship over five years to examine the role vocal communication plays in negotiating complex social behaviour, such as cooperation in animal systems, which may shed light on how early human societies evolved.
“Humans form the most complex cooperative alliances that we know – a nested structure of alliance formation which ranges from kin factions within villages to modern day alliances between nation states,” she said.
“However, bottlenose dolphins also form nested alliances or alliances within alliances and this parallel between dolphins and humans provides us with a unique opportunity to understand the evolution of complex communication and the role it plays in cooperation.”
The male dolphins in Western Australia’s Shark Bay area are recognised for their formation of nested alliances, where male dolphins cooperate in the pursuit and defence of females.
Dr King will use underwater microphones and sound playback experiments to explore the role of communication in the formation and maintenance of these male alliances, and the communication strategies the males use when making decisions about when and with whom they cooperate.
The results of the study will be used together with mathematical models to generate a testable theoretical framework on the evolutionary forces that favour vocal communication strategies as a solution to life’s challenges.
Dr King said animal studies could provide simple examples of complex human systems.
“By exploring which communication strategies are important for dolphin alliances we may gain some insight into which communication strategies were important in the formation of political and social structures of early humans.”
Society in Science – The Branco Weiss Fellowship was founded in 2002 to provide a platform for researchers in the natural sciences and engineering aiming to extend their scientific work to cover specific social and cultural questions and perspectives.
The fellowship was initiated and funded by Swiss entrepreneur Dr Branco Weiss, who died in 2010. To qualify for the grant, candidates must hold a PhD and provide evidence of outstanding scientific achievement. Up to 10 fellowships are awarded each year.