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Pee-Wee (top) and Kiwi swimming together off New Zealand; image courtesy of Lawrence Hamilton

A bottlenose dolphin in New Zealand appears to have adopted an abandoned common dolphin calf in an event that, if true, can be described as extremely rare.

If this were not heartwarming enough, the bottlenose dolphin, known among researchers as Kiwi, is believed to have lost her own baby after becoming stranded on a muddy bank inside Kerikeri Inlet five years ago.

The common dolphin calf has been given the name, Pee-Wee.

The pair has been seen together since January, but last week Lawrence Hamilton, a crew member aboard the vessel Tangaroa, captured an image showing Pee-Wee swimming upside-down and nursing from beneath Kiwi (see image below). This occurred outside of Onewhero Bay.

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Pee-Wee takes milk from Kiwi; photo courtesy of Lawrence Hamilton

Bottlenose dolphins and common dolphins rarely intermix, short of being in the same general area by happenstance, and there are no known instances of hybrid bottlenose-common dolphin calves being produced in the wild.

This further suggests that Pee-Wee is an abandoned calf taken underwing by Kiwi. Regardless, it’s a significant discovery.

"It's just so unusual; the crew are ecstatic," Jo "Floppy" Halliday, a dolphin expert, told the Northern Advocate. Hallidayis a naturalist with Bay of Islands–Fullers GreatSights, a travel company that specializes in dolphin cruises. Halliday is said to know all the local dolphins by name.

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Kiwi being rescued from mud flat five years ago; photo credit unknown

Kiwi somehow became stuck on a mud flat five years ago (see photo above). She was "refloated" by rescuers, but her calf, Squirt, was never seen again. It’s presumed that Squirt was killed by orcas.

Halliday told the Northern Advocate that Kiwi is not known to have given birth since losing Squirt, but is clearly giving milk to the baby common dolphin.

"There's so many things they're capable of doing," she said. "They may be able to switch on lactation on demand."

Bottlenose dolphins are among cetacean species known to have nursed and cared for the young of other dolphins in their pods. Even older dolphins, namely grandparents, have shown the capability of nursing. (Pilot whales and beluga whales are two other examples. So are primates.)

It's not yet known whether Pee-Wee is a male or female.

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