Bizarre Thing Happens During Anaconda's Playdate With Dolphins

By Samantha in Nature On 5th May 2022
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Back in August 2021, there was a research team that was documenting biodiversity near the Tijamuchi River in Bolivia. At that place, they noted that some animals are typically difficult to observe: Bolivian river dolphins.

Just seeing them with their heads above the river was extraordinary, said Steffen Reichle, a biologist at the Noel Kempff Mercado Museum of Natural History in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, and a member of the team.

At this point, they knew something was different and so they immediately started taking pictures.

 

Omar M. Entiauspe Neto, Steffen Reichle, Alejandro dos Rios

Once they started skimming through the pictures that the researchers realized that the dolphins were dangling an anaconda as they swam.

The researchers described what they saw in the journal Ecology last month. It is a known fact that the dolphins in captivity and the wild animals are known for their playful nature, however, the surprising behavior of the Bolivian cetaceans seems like a new frontier in frolicking among the aquatic mammals, and some scientists still aren’t sure what to think about what the team observed.

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Dr. Reichle says Bolivian river dolphins swim mostly below the surface and the sightings they catch is mostly their fin or a tail. However, some six animals that they saw had their heads about the turbid water for an unusually long time.

In fact, at one point the two male dolphins were seen swimming in sync, with a snake held by their mouths.

Anacondas are semiaquatic and can hold their breaths for some time. But because the snake was handled for at least seven minutes, much of this submerged, it probably perished.

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“I don’t think that the snake had a very good time,” Dr. Reichle said.

As the interaction was observed for some time, the team suspected that they were playing - not predation.

Bolivia’s native Beni anacondas are apex predators. Other than a single case of cannibalism, researchers haven’t documented the serpents being eaten. In this case, the team did not see where the snake ended up.

Omar M. Entiauspe Neto, Steffen Reichle, Alejandro dos Rios
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With how lively dolphins are, “playing seems like a pretty good answer,” said Omar Entiauspe-Neto, one of the paper’s authors and a taxonomist at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

However, it is important to note that some of the dolphins gathered were juveniles and so this could suggest another dimension of the interaction:  The adults may have been teaching the youngsters about anacondas or showing them a hunting technique.

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But Sonja Wild, a behavioral ecologist at Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany, who was not part of the study, was skeptical that the interaction was purposely instructive. It’s more plausible the juveniles were observing because they were curious, she says.

And because anacondas are strong, Dr. Wild wonders if the snake was injured or dead before the dolphins got to it. Of all the things one could pick up, “this seems a little extraordinary,” she said.

 

 

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“This is the first time I’ve heard of dolphins playing with a large snake,” added Dr. Wild, who has observed bottlenose dolphins using shells as tools.

Apart from all these things, something else that was notable from the pictures was the male dolphins’ erect penises.

“It could have been sexually stimulating for them,” said Diana Reiss, a marine mammal scientist and cognitive psychologist at Hunter College in New York who was not involved with the study. “It could have been something to rub on.”

The scientist suggests that the aroused male dolphins could be playing around with each other when the snake became entagled with them.

 

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Researchers who study dolphins are well aware of the animals’ sexual proclivities, such as rubbing their genitals on toys or inserting their penises into objects, animate and inanimate. They often use their penises for tactile interactions, Dr. Reiss says. She has even observed male bottlenose dolphins trying to penetrate the blowhole of a rescued pilot whale in an aquarium. It’s possible, she added, that the males tried to insert their penises into the snake.

“There are so many questions,” Mr. Entiauspe-Neto says.

Scientists have a lot more information about the ocean-dwelling dolphins than riverine ones, in part because it’s harder to see what’s going on when river water is muddy and even though they’re limited in nature, “these observations are always valuable,” Dr. Reiss says. “It’s giving us another glimpse of the lives of these animals, particularly in the wild.”

Well, one thing is for sure, that whatever happened in this encounter is not something that could be seen in children's book.

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