Genealogy of the Dolphins at Monkey Mia
Over the last 40 years small groups of dolphins have visited the shores of Monkey Mia, in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, to interact with people. Researchers have identified the life history and family tree of each of these dolphins, who come from three ‘families’, spanning three generations.
The 3 dolphin family trees
Who’s who at Monkey Mia?
Currently five adult female dolphins – Nicky, Puck, Piccolo, Surprise and Shock – are fed at Monkey Mia. Each dolphin is identified by the distinctive shape or markings on her dorsal fin. The adults are often accompanied by their calves.
Nicky (born 29th December 1975)
Nicky - the oldest beach visiting dolphin.
Nicky's fin has a distinctive nick caused by a boat propeller.
Nicky is the daughter of Holeyfin, who was one of the first dolphins to visit the beach and accept fish from humans in the 1970s, and possibly as early as the 1960s. Holeyfin died in 1995 from a stingray barb, which pierced her heart. Her body washed ashore near Cape Rose and researchers secured it for analysis. She was estimated to be 35 years old at her death, making her the oldest known beach-visiting dolphin. Scientists estimated her age by counting the enamel rings in her teeth.
Nicky is now the oldest of the current beach-visiting dolphins, and she is the most reliable, visiting the beach almost daily. Unlike the other beach-visiting dolphins, who are quite social, Nicky remains a relatively solitary dolphin. Much of her time away from the beach is spent alone.
Nicky has given birth to eight calves. Sadly, six have died and one, Yadgalah (born 09/12/2002), has not been seen for some time. Fin (born 27/08/2008) is Nicky’s only surviving calf who visits the beach regularly. The high death rate of Nicky's offspring has been attributed to unregulated feeding and overfeeding in the past. The feeding regime was changed at Monkey Mia in 1995 after one of Nicky’s calves, Finnick, died as a result of a dependency on fish handouts. Finnick lost the ability to hunt and the ability to form important social bonds with other dolphins. Since 1995, when DEC changed the feeding program, the survival rate of the calves has increased.
You can identify Nicky and all the other dolphins by their dorsal fins. Nicky is easily identified by a distinctive nick in her dorsal fin, an unfortunate marking caused by a boat propeller.
Nicky and her newborn calf, Fin just after birth in 2008
Puck (born 1st December 1976)
Puck, the daughter of Crooked Fin
Marks on Puck's fin were caused by entanglement in fishing nets.
Puck is the daughter of Crookedfin, one of the original Monkey Mia beach dolphins who began visiting the beach in the late 1970s.
Puck, like Nicky, is a regular visitor to the beach, but Puck is a more social dolphin. She is well integrated into the Red Cliff Bay larger community of female dolphins.
Members of Puck's family have a close bond and spend most of their time socialising and foraging together. Puck’s family is very skilled at "rooster-tail" foraging, which occurs in deeper water. They swim fast at the surface of the water, leaving a trail, and then they backtrack on the dive down to catch their prey. It is unclear what type of prey they are hunting.
Puck has birthed eight calves. Her first three calves died while very young. Her first calf died only a few days after birth and was not named. Puck’s first calf to survive to weaning was Piccolo (born 06/12/1992). Piccolo now regularly visits the beach and became a member of the beach interaction program in 2004. In 2003, Puck became a grandmother when Piccolo had her first calf, Eden (born 20/11/2003).
Puck’s next calf, Kiya (born 13/12/1997), was attacked by a shark in 1999. She survived the attack and now boasts an impressive scar the size of a dinner plate on her body's left side. Puck’s other surviving calves are India (born 07/05/2004) and Samu (born 12/12/2009). Puck is still nursing Samu. Samu is a lively dolphin and spends most mornings zipping past the visitors on the beach, often in pursuit of fish.
You can identify Puck and all the other dolphins by their dorsal fins. Most of the markings on Puck’s dorsal fin are the result of being entangled in fishing nets while chasing mullet in 1994.
Piccolo (born 6th December 1992)
To identify Piccolo look for the distinctive cut in her fin.
Piccolo is Puck’s fourth calf and was introduced to the beach interaction program in 1999. Piccolo initially appeared more interested in offering the fish to the rangers than eating the fish herself. In 2004, Piccolo transitioned and began accepting fish from visitors. Piccolo still takes her time with her food and will often show her fish to visitors before she eventually swallows it whole.
Piccolo gave birth to her first calf, Eden (born 20/11/2003), when she was 11 years old, making her one of the youngest dolphins in the Monkey Mia interaction program to give birth. Eden is developing well and occasionally visits the beach with mother Piccolo and grandmother Puck.
Piccolo is now nursing her second calf, Flute (born 13/11/2007). Piccolo and Flute can often be seen in the afternoons foraging and chasing fish at impressive speeds along the shoreline near the Dolphin Interaction Area. Dolphins can reach speeds of up to 40 km/hour when herding fish.
Genetic sampling has shown that Piccolo and Kiya (born 13/12/1997) are full sisters. This means they have the same mother (Puck) and father (Real Notch). Fathers do not associate with their offspring beyond the act of mating with their mother. Kiya is a regular visitor to the beach but is not offered fish. Kiya had her first calf, Khamun (born 27/12/2009), at 12 years old.
You can identify Piccolo and all the other dolphins by their dorsal fins. Piccolo’s fin has a two-centimetre-deep slit about three centimetres below the tip and several other notches further down.
Surprise (born c. 1977)
Surprise's dorsal fin has a rounded tip.
Unlike Nicky and Puck who began visiting the beach as calves, Surprise became a regular visitor as a teenager (~13 years old). Surprise began visiting the beach in the late 1980s but did not begin to accept fish until 1990. Surprise was named for her tendency to suddenly appear at researchers' boats for a bow ride. Surprise also tends to appear unexpectedly during the morning interactions.
The dolphins at Monkey Mia are Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins, a sub-species of the Common Bottlenose Dolphin. Interestingly, Surprise is thought to be a mix of the two species. She has a shorter rostrum, a larger body size, and has fewer speckles on her belly than a mature Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphin would have.
Surprise has birthed six calves. Surprise’s first calf, Shadow, lived only a few months, but Surprise’s other calves survived: Shock (born 28/10/1994), Sparky (born 14/11/1998), Burda (born 21/01/2003), Shiver (born 30/11/2006) and Sonic (born 17/11/2010). Surprise currently nurses Sonic. The name "Sonic" means audible sound and relates to a new research project conducted by Murdoch University and the University of Southern Denmark. Researchers are using a hydrophone (underwater microphone) to record Sonic's sound emissions. The goal is to better understand how echolocation signals develop in young dolphins.
Surprise’s oldest daughter, Shock, was introduced to the beach interaction program in 2006. Shock had her first calf, Startle, in 2007, making Surprise a grandmother.
You can identify Surprise and all the other dolphins by their dorsal fins. Surprise’s dorsal fin has a rounded tip and has a few sharp notches midway down.
Shock (born 28th October 1994)
Shock's dorsal fin has few markings.
Shock is Surprise’s second calf and is the youngest provisioned dolphin at Monkey Mia. Shock was introduced to the beach interaction program in 2006 when she was pregnant with her first calf. Like Surprise, Shock is sometimes an elusive dolphin, often preferring to remain at the back of the Dolphin Interaction Area when visiting the beach.
Shock has inherited Surprise's impressive foraging skills. Surprise and Shock are very skilled at catching and eating flathead, a very spiny fish common to the sea grass flats. Very few dolphins are able to catch and consume this type of fish. Surprise and Shock spend most of their time foraging in shallow waters (less than four meters) on the flats northeast of Monkey Mia.
Genetic sampling has revealed that Bottom Hook is Shock’s father. Fathers do not associate with their offspring beyond the act of mating with their mother. In Shark Bay, alliances of two-three males cooperate together to herd females for periods of up to one month. Alliance partners are usually found together and their bond can last for years.
Startle (born 15/01/2007) is Shock’s first calf and Surprise’s only granddaughter. Startle was attacked by a shark in December 2007, and now boasts an impressive scar on the left side of her body, behind her blowhole. Startle is currently being weaned.
Calves are always weaned by their mothers before the birth of their next calf. You can identify Shock and all the other dolphins by their dorsal fins. Shock’s dorsal fin has very few markings but can be identified easily by its arched shape.