We all know dolphins can learn all sorts of tricks when they’re in captivity.
But a new study has shown how they go on to teach tricks to each other in the wild, like ‘walking on water’.
The 30-year study, led by Whale and Dolphin Conservation with the universities of St Andrews and Exeter, looked at how the trick was learned by a single dolphin then copied by peers in the wild.
And then – like a human fad – the skill dies out, according to the research, which is published in the Royal Society’s ‘Biology Letters’.
According to the research, ‘tail walking’ rarely occurs in the wild but is standard in most routines taught to dolphins in captivity.
The study focused on Billie, one of the dolphins in WDC’s adoption programme, who was rescued from a polluted creek in January 1988, spending several weeks in a dolphinarium before being released back into the wild.
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Billie appears to have learned talk walking by watching performing dolphins, continuing to do the trick when back in the wild.
Apparently soon after other dolphins in Billie’s local community began copying her behaviour and by 2011 nine dolphins had been observed tail walking in the wild.
Despite the initial fad, after 2011 the number of dolphins tail walking in the wild declined with the most prolific tail walker dying in 2014, leaving only two but even they only performed the trick sporadically.
Lead author of the paper, WDC’s Dr Mike Bossley, said it was only because he had been studying the Adelaide dolphins for more than 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,” he said. “This enabled me to observe tail walking spread through the community and then its eventual fade away.”
University of St Andrews researcher Dr Luke Rendell, a 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.”