Why do dolphins jump? Actually, they jump (also called a bow) for a number of reasons. If captive, they may jump
because this behavior has been reinforced with rewards such as food or by the trainer providing positive reinforcement
such as applause, a high five, or a tap on the rostrum. As a natural behavior they jump to get high above the water to see
around their environment. They are able to jump up to 20 feet above the water surface. This provides them the opportunity
to look for predators such as sharks. Or it allows them to spot flocks of birds feeding on fish, a great way to locate their
next meal. They may jump to shed parasites they have picked up in the ocean or to communicate their presence to other dolphins,
saying, "I'm over here" or, "Come join me". Such jumps and resulting loud slaps on the water surface may also be an aggressive
behavior, a dolphin's attempt to establish dominance within the pod.
Bows may conclude with a head-first return to the water or may end with a side or back flop. These bows are referred
to as "breaching".
The powerful muscular peduncle (tail section) of the dolphin aids in such jumping behavior. It is the upward
stroke of the peduncle and flukes which provide the power stroke. The muscles located along the upper (or dorsal) side of
the peduncle are more powerful than those located on the lower (ventral) side. Thus the powerful muscles used in the upward
stroke propel the animal forward, while the less powerful muscles return the flukes to the "start" position. As the flukes
are raised in the upward stroke, their tips bend upward to catch more water and help the dolphin to move faster and to achieve
Here a 500 pound female Atlantic Bottlenose uses her powerful peduncle and flukes to
provide the force to jump over me with plenty of room to spare.
We know that migrating and flocking birds perform synchronous behaviors (performing
behaviors together) based upon visual clues in their environment (flocks turning at once, migrations following geographic
references). Synchronous behavior often occurs with dolphins, as well. Jumping together is an example of a synchronous
dolphin behavior. There is some evidence to suggest that dolphins communicate with each other prior to, during, and after
synchronous behaviors so as to coordinate these activities and to evaluate their success at working together. Synchronous
behavior results from behavioral mimicry. It is believed that one dolphin acts as the demonstrator and the other dolphin acts
as the imitator of the behavior. Some investigators working with Bottlenose dolphins have observed light areas on the leading
or back edges of the fins and flukes as well as on the rostrum. One theory suggests these light areas may serve as reference
points on which other dolphins may focus during synchronous behaviors, ensuring they are performed together. In the following
video Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins perform a number of synchronous bows at the trainer's request.
In the following video a pair of male dolphins is seen performing synchronous
behaviors including bows and fluke wags.
The most precise synchronous behaviors in wild dolphins are demonstrated by bonded mail pairs. These synchronous
behaviors include surfacing at precisely the same time to breathe, bowing together, swimming while in contact with each other's
pectoral fins, and turning sharply together at exactly the same time. Such behaviors may be useful as a way in which to impress
potential female mates, to warn other males that "We are tight; don't interfere with us", or just to express the close
relationship each member of the pair has to one another.
Understanddolphins.com contains information condensed from a number of reputable technical sources,
peer reviewed journal articles, and respected dolphin research facilities, as well as from my personal experiences and
observations as a dolphin VIP Tour Guide and Educator.
I have made every attempt to support the information presented in this site with video and still
photographic images. On a regular basis I plan to produce more of these images and will continue to update the site with these
as well as with any new and scientifically verified information which becomes available.