Dark side of dolphin can be dangerous

Bloody behaviors send warning signs to scientists

July 06, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Everybody loves dolphins, those playful models of animal wisdom, celebrated for protecting shipwrecked sailors and spending their days frolicking happily in the waves. Movies, television and water shows feature their antics.

But scientists are discovering that dolphins are far from the happy, peaceful creatures that humans think they know.

Growing evidence shows that the big animals, up to 12 feet long, are killing fellow mammals in droves, wielding their beaks as clubs and slashing away with rows of sharp teeth. Dolphins have been found to bludgeon porpoises to death by the hundreds.

Unlike most animal killers, which eat their prey, dolphins seem to have murderous urges unrelated to the need for food.

They have even been observed in recurring acts of infanticide.

"Wildlife can be dangerous," said Trevor R. Spradlin, a federal dolphin expert. "But people see marine mammals differently, particularly dolphins. There's this misconception that they're friendly, that they're Flipper, that they want to play with people."

Officials at the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service, where Spradlin works, have begun an educational campaign that sends out brochures to marinas, schools and fairs in coastal areas where people and dolphins interact.

"Dozens of bites have been reported," says one flier. "And people have been pulled under water. A woman who fed a pair of dolphins and then jumped into the water to swim with them had to rip her leg out of the mouth of one of the dolphins."

Pub Date: 7/06/99

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