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Like members of a street gang, male dolphins summon their buddies when it comes time to raid and pillage—or, in their case, to capture and defend females in heat. A new study reveals they do this by learning the “names,” or signature whistles, of their closest allies—sometimes more than a dozen animals—and remembering who consistently cooperated with them in the past. The findings indicate dolphins have a concept of team membership—previously seen only in humans—and may help reveal how they maintain such intricate and tight-knit societies.

“It is a ground-breaking study,” says Luke Rendell, a behavioral ecologist at the University of St. Andrews who was not involved with the research. The work adds evidence to the idea that dolphins evolved large brains to navigate their complex social environments.

Male dolphins typically cooperate as a pair or trio, in what researchers call a “first-order alliance.” These small groups work together to find and corral a fertile female. Males also cooperate in second-order alliances comprised of as many as 14 dolphins; these defend against rival groups attempting to steal the female. Some second-order alliances join together in even larger third-order alliances, providing males in these groups with even better chances of having allies nearby should rivals attack.

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