Have you ever watched a dolphin and thought ‘she’s behaving like Aunty Mavis’ or ‘he’s acting like Cousin John’?
Probably not, to be honest. But if you had, you could be closer to the truth than you imagined. Because it turns out that a team of UK-led scientists have discovered that dolphins actually have several similar personality traits to humans.
Whether that’s a good thing – given Aunty Mavis’s fondness for playing the pokies and Cousin John’s famously foul mouth after a few beers – is another matter entirely. But I digress.
A study published this week in the Journal of Comparative Psychology notes that dolphins show a convergence of certain personality traits common in humans, especially curiosity and sociability.
Researchers examined 134 bottlenose dolphins
The researchers from universities in the UK, US and Europe examined 134 male and female bottlenose dolphins from eight facilities across the world, with each dolphin’s personality being assessed by staff at those facilities.
Their work has also assisted scientists to understand how certain human personality traits developed independently of people’s immediate environments.
These similarities were found despite dolphins having evolved in a vastly different environment from primates, with the last common ancestor living about 95-million years ago – way before Aunt Mavis developed her bad pokie habit.
Lead author of the study, psychology lecturer Dr Blake Morton from the University of Hull, said this was the first time the personality of dolphins had been studied in this way.
Like primates, dolphins are intelligent and social
“Dolphins were a great animal for this kind of study because, like primates, dolphins are intelligent and social. We reasoned that if factors such as intelligence and gregariousness contribute to personality, then dolphins should have similar personality traits to primates,” he explained.
“Dolphins, like many primates, have brains that are considerably larger than what their bodies require for basic bodily functions; this excess of brain matter essentially powers their ability to be intelligent, and intelligent species are often very curious.”
Morton said that the most widely accepted model of human personality is defined by five traits, which are replicated everywhere in human personality regardless of environment. These traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
He added that although many studies have looked at the extent to which these traits are shared by primates, this study aimed to look at intelligent animals in a completely different setting.
Dolphin personalities are similar, but not identical
“Scientists still do not fully understand why our behaviour comes down to those five traits, so one way of doing that is to compare ourselves to other animals – what we share in common and why.”
Dr Morton emphasised that although the personalities of dolphins had been shown to be similar to humans, they were not identical.
“I don’t want people to misinterpret that and say humans and dolphins have the same personality traits – they don’t. It’s just that some of them are similar.”
Good thing that. You wouldn’t want weird Aunty Mavis swimming around off the beach at Bondi.