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Kylie, the dolphin that speaks porpoise

I consider myself lucky. My partner and I live with our windows looking onto the Firth of Clyde. In 2009, a kayaking neighbour told us about a solitary dolphin, living practically right outside our window. We bought binoculars, we graduated to a telescope, the dolphin was all over YouTube but we never saw it. One day, we set out to row to the dolphin's location. About half way there, we realised that maybe it wasn't such a good idea for two completely inexperienced people to enter the shipping channel in a second hand rowing boat. So we watched from afar as boat after boat approached the dolphin's location and circled around it and we wondered how that poor dolphin could ever get any peace. Later, we heard the dolphin had gone - perhaps harassed away by well-meaning people hoping to have a flipperesque encounter with a wild dolphin.

'Kylie' the common dolphin is now back in her old stomping ground and David Nairn from the Clyde Marine Mammal Project is keeping a close eye on her, 'gently' discouraging jet skiers from chasing after her. A marine ecologist with a passion for porpoises, he has been listening to the dolphin with his hydrophone - the results are inconclusive and the recording is too short but the dolphin may be modifying her clicks and whistles to communicate with porpoises. They are going back out at the weekend to get another recording, did I want to come? Did I ever!

We approached the dolphin slowly and silently drifted a polite distance away from her location, the hydrophone trailing behind us. She was exactly where David thought she would be, gently circling around a marker buoy and, perhaps because we approached her so carefully, she couldn't care less that we were there. As I listened to her rythmic squeaks through the headphones, it appeared to me she was resting, safe within the shelter of her favourite buoy. The local newspaper recently described this dolphin as 'friendly' but she's definitely no Flipper. She's a solitary, wild dolphin and she has no need for human companionship. In 2009, she was seen with a calf, but now it seems this calf may not have been a dolphin calf but a juvenile porpoise. And she has been filmed with an adult porpoise since then.

Solitary dolphins are rare and, sadly, their interactions with humans never seem to end well. Jojo, the solitary dolphin from Turks and Caicos, is covered with scars from boat strikes. Just this year, Dingle's beloved Fungie suffered a deep and nasty gash to his side from a boat propeller. Kylie looks relatively scar free, apart from the unmistakable nick in her fin, but does she need a management plan to help her stay that way? David Nairn certainly thinks so. If solitary dolphins are rare, female solitary dolphins are rarer, and dolphins that socially interact with porpoises, virtually unheard of.

So Kylie has chosen to communicate with others outside her own species and even to care for at least one of them. This may well be uncommon for dolphins, but for plants, not that unusual at all. Around 95% of plants are able to form relationships with fungi in the soil. The fungi surround the roots, creating a hair-like structure that massively extends the roots' ability to access water. It's kind of like the relationship we have with our dogs, the fungus fetches water for the plant and the plant rewards it with some of its sugars.

But that's not all fungi does for their plant masters. Woodland plants know there is safety in numbers so they indulge in co-operative behaviour. To co-operate, they must communicate and the roots of one tree can talk to the roots of another by means of their fungal partners. If something, like a disease or infestation threatens the woodland, messages are passed along via the fungus grapevine so all the plants can ready their defences. And the communication network is not all about delivering bad news. Like Kylie the dolphin, a solitary tree is vulnerable and it's in its best interests to have some companionship. For the collective good, mature trees can volunteer to help younger ones by delivering nutrients through the fungal network.

When plants find themselves under attack, they can release volatile chemicals to summon beneficial predators. Tobacco plants, for example, can be devasted by an attack from tobacco horn worms so, as soon as they detect the saliva of a horn worm, they send out a cry for help to predatory Geocoris bugs and its only a short while before Geocoris comes running to help.

All this inter-species chatter makes me think of my houseplants. No one knows why some dolphins are solitary and whether it's by accident or by choice, but I know my houseplants didn't choose a solitary existence. Separated from the outside world and trapped in their pots, they are cut off from the fungus network and any flying insects they might want to talk to will have to get past Henry the cat and my collection of carniverous plants. It's quite possible then, that I am their only friend.

I hope Kylie gets her management plan and she isn't hounded away from her home again so she can continue to be with her porpoise pals. I'd like to think that, just as in Toy Story, my houseplants get together for a gossip when I'm out of the room or maybe they're constantly communicating, using chemicals I cannot detect. But, just in case it's feeling a wee bit lonely, I'm off for a chat with my cheeseplant.

Julie Kilpatrick is author of The Plant Listener. She is a lecturer in landscape design and horticulture and editor of online gardening magazine 'Gardenzine'.

Kylie photo courtesy of clyde marine mammal project

Houseplant photo from

Woodland photo from Johnson

The Plant Listener, available in paperback and on kindle at Amazon


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