Dolphins teach one another to walk on water

| 5th September 2018
Tail walking dolphin
University of St Andrews
New research shows dolphins learning to walk on water from one another. Could this passing fad teach us more about cultural behaviours in dolphin communities? MARIANNE BROOKER reports

It seems she learned tail walking by observing the performing dolphins and, when released, began performing this unique behaviour with regularity in the wild.

Dolphins learn tricks from each other in the wild - as well as being trained to perform tricks in captivity, a 30 study has revealed.

The research, led by the Universities of St Andrews and Exeter and published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters, focused on a scientific analysis of Adelaide’s famous tail walking dolphins.

It describes how tail walking was learned by a single dolphin called Billie and then copied by other dolphins in the local community, and, much like a pop fad, then faded out.

Social learning

Tail walking involves a dolphin rising vertically out of the water and then moving forward or backwards across it. The behaviour rarely occurs in the wild from this species but is a standard part of the routine in almost all dolphinaria.

Billie was rescued from a polluted creek in January 1988, spending several weeks in a dolphinarium, until released back in to the wild. It seems she learned tail walking by observing the performing dolphins and, when released, began performing this unique behaviour with regularity in the wild.

Billie’s tail walking would be nothing more than an interesting example of individual social learning if she alone had performed it, after having observed it during her short time in captivity. But soon other dolphins in the local community began performing the behaviour.

By 2011 nine dolphins had been observed tail walking in the wild. After 2011 the number of dolphins tail walking in the wild declined with the most prolific tail-walker dying in 2014, leaving only two remaining tail-walkers, both of whom performed the behaviour only sporadically.

Tail walking now seems destined to disappear from the community and thus can be considered a dying fad.

Cultural behaviours

The behaviour was tracked using thousands of hours of observation effort by citizen scientists, and its spread suggests a social function for copying in dolphin communities.

Cultural behaviours arise when individuals learn a specific behaviour from other members of their social group, which then spreads through the community. Sometimes cultural behaviours, such as foraging strategies, are passed between generations.

Fads are short-lived examples of socially learned behaviours which flourish for a short time and then disappear.

Dr Mike Bossley of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, lead author of the paper, noted that it was only because he had been studying the Adelaide dolphins for over 30 years that the significance of tail walking was recognised.

“I knew Billie’s history and was able to track her behaviour and that of the other dolphins in the community over an extended period. This enabled me to observe tail walking spread through the community and then its eventual fade away.”

Dr Luke Rendell, a University of St Andrews researcher and co-author who specialises on researching whale and dolphin cultural behaviour, said: “Once again we see the power of being able to study cetaceans over extended periods that mean something given their lifespans.

"Dr Bossley’s long-term commitment has afforded us a revealing insight into the potential social role of imitation in dolphin communities.”

Rapid spread

The existence of cultural behaviour has important implications for conservation.

Philippa Brakes, a co-author of the paper also from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, explained: “Understanding more about the social transmission of behaviour will help us predict how different species may respond to changes in their environment.

"The rapid spread of socially learnt behaviours can operate much faster than the intergenerational process of natural selection, which can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the type of behaviour transmitted.”

This Author

Marianne Brooker is a contributing editor for The Ecologist. This story is based on a press release from the University of St Andrews. The full paper can be read here

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