The Story of a Big Dolphin Named Butterfly
Nan Bowles, 05 September 2012
Butterfly was first photographed by Keith Rittmaster, Natural Science Curator at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, on the 31st of December 1993. He was seen in our Beaufort, NC waters along the ocean shore of Shackleford Banks. For the next 19 years we almost always saw Butterfly in the presence of his friend Onion.
Predictably we would see them in Beaufort waters around the first week of November, occasionally the last week of October (See table below). They stayed in our area through the winter leaving sometime in April. For years we didn’t know where Butterfly and Onion went when they weren’t in the Beaufort area. Through collaboration with colleagues north of us, we found out this pair of dolphins were spending their summers in the Manteo area and were photographed by Rich Mallon-Day with the Nag’s Head Dolphin Watch program. Finally we had the story of where our dolphin friends traveled when not off the Beaufort coast!
In other dolphin societies, Monkey Mia in Shark Bay Australia and in Sarasota Bay of Florida, male dolphins have been observed forming bonding pairs that can last a life time.1 The bond is very strong between these male pairs. We believe Butterfly and Onion were a male pair.
From December of 1993 to July of 2012, 19 years, these two dolphins spent their time in the Manteo waters in the summer and the Beaufort waters in the winter. Whenever we saw Butterfly and Onion, they seemed to be breathing each other’s breath every time they surfaced. They made a familiar pair that regularly made the trip down to the Beaufort area every autumn.
In July of this summer, 2012, Jessica Taylor of the Manteo research team reported that Onion was seen alone, without Butterfly. This alerted us to something unusual. Then, on August 1st, Karen Clark of the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education responded to a stranded fresh dead male bottlenose dolphin on the ocean side of Kill Devil Hills, NC. Karen passed along the dorsal fin photos and they were an easy match to Butterfly.
What will happen to Onion now? Will he find a new friend to help him gain access to females and help protect him from shark attacks?1 We will wait and see, hoping Onion continues to live a long and fulfilled life of an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.
Want to get to know Butterfly a little bit? Take a closer look at Butterfly’s fin and you will notice that midway down the trailing edge is a mark that to me resembled the wings of a butterfly (see below).
What have we learned from Butterfly? From his stranding data we know he was a very big dolphin, nine feet five inches long. Compared to average size, 6-8 feet long, Butterfly was a big guy. Perhaps when the samples of skin, one of his teeth, and stomach contents are analyzed and processed more about Butterfly’s life will be revealed to us. A lot of what we have learned is that we sure don’t know very much about these incredible, graceful swimmers and members of the ocean communities. Peace be with you Butterfly.
1.Two levels of alliance formation among male bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) Richard Conner, Rachel A Smolker, and Andrew F. Richards. National Academy of Science. USA. Vol.89, pp.987-990. February 1992.
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