Why become speckled? Ontogeny and function of speckling in Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.)



To date, color patterns have been used to assess cetacean age and taxonomic status, but few studies have determined precise correlates of coloration with known age or investigated its function. Here, we examine the ontogeny of speckling in 88 bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) in Shark Bay, Australia, of known age, tracked from birth to age 34. Ventral speckles first appear in the genital area at a mean age of 10.2 ± 0.35 yr (range = 7.6–12.7 yr). Throughout their life span, speckles increase in number and density, particularly along the ventral and lateral sides. The timing of speckle onset does not significantly differ by sex but is related to sexual maturity in females. The age of speckle onset in the genital area correlates with the age of first known parturition. In terms of speckle function, we discuss two hypotheses commonly proffered to explain color variation, concealment, and communication. Concealment from predators or prey is unlikely to explain speckle development in Shark Bay Tursiops because the onset occurs long after peak predation risk and initial hunting success (at 3 mo of age). We suggest that speckle patterns offer reliable cues on reproductive status and/or condition and could, thus, serve a communicative or some other function.