Bottlenose dolphin moms give birth in an open environment. Newborn dolphins remain very close to their mothers for the first few weeks after birth.
Something called echelon swimming takes place for at least the first week. During this time, the newborn receives physical support from its mother. The neonate is led along by its mother, almost draped over her head area.
The two come to the surface to breathe in synch with one another. This extra support helps the calf develop its own coordination of moving, breathing, and diving.
Dolphin newborns represent a unique category of animal baby because they are air-breathing, but are born in, and live entirely in, water.
In addition to the shock of getting born, dolphins also must learn to swim and learn when and when not to breathe. This makes them more precocial than terrestrial counterparts, because without these immediate skills they would certainly drown.
However, dolphins share many characteristics with primates – things like a long lifespan and slow life history. So, although baby dolphins are born with the innate ability to survive, much like human babies they still have a lot of cognitive developing to do after birth.
Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable stage of life for most whale and dolphin infants is directly after birth. This period is marked by repeated bouts of fast swimming in dolphins, whales, and many others, which could be the reason behind the evolution of the echelon position. Moms help their neonates learn to swim, remain buoyant, and learn to breathe, all while moving at a fast pace to avoid predation.
After a week of echelon swimming, newborn dolphins assume a swimming position directly underneath the mother’s abdomen. This is called the infant position. Newborns remain here for a few more weeks as they gain increasing independence from their mom.
The early transition from a position beside mom’s head to the spot on her abdomen is reflective of the developing abilities of the baby. When its swimming becomes stronger, it no longer needs the extra support. The newborn position still affords the baby protection and proximity to mom’s mammary slits, but it doesn’t need to be propped up any more.
In addition to remaining very close to their moms, newborns rub against them and pet them, most often near their heads. Many dolphin moms experience attempted sexual advances from their infant sons within three weeks of their birth.
Bottle nosed dolphins are hypersexual creatures that engage in sexual activities several times per hour as adults, so this observation is not particularly surprising, nor is the fact that erections in newborn male bottlenose dolphins are often observed within two days of birth.
After the first month, dolphin babies begin so socialize and learn to forage away from their mothers. The amount of time they spend away from them is related to age, and moms encourage independence of their offspring as they often must make foraging trips of substantial distance.
Several mothers will group their offspring together to create larger groups of moms and babies, which serves many purposes.
First, it keeps the juveniles safe from predation and from unwanted sexual advances of adult males (groups are comprised of females and juveniles only), and second, it allows the juveniles to socially engage with each other and learn to play, forage, and communicate.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book “Wild Moms: Motherhood in the Animal Kingdom“