Thirty long years of both citizen scientists and active researchers observing dolphins in the wild has revealed something rather neat: they can teach each other how to “walk” on their tail atop the ocean waves.
It’s been thoroughly documented before that humans can successfully teach dolphins such tricks in captivity, but this new study – to be published in The Royal Society: Biology Letters in the near-future – clearly describes its occurrence in open waters, which means more than you think it might.
The research, led by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), as well as the Universities of St. Andrews and Exeter, noted that tail walking isn’t exactly a common sight, but plenty of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) in the waters of Australia’s Adelaide engage in the sick dance move. So where did it come from?
Billie the dolphin was rescued from a polluted creek back in 1988. She spent several weeks in a dolphinarium there before being released back into the wild. She then began tail walking, something she would have seen performing dolphins do while in containment.
Importantly, other wild dolphins that have never put one single flipper in such an artificial environment in their lives also began tail walking. This is presumably because they watched Billie do it and fancied giving it a go themselves.
The WDC have observed wild dolphins in the area performing this trick for some time now; this news report dating back to 2009, for example, describes tail walking being observed in two adult female dolphins, including Billie. It’s noted then that it appears to have no practical function and the dolphins appear to be doing it just for fun.
This is the real takeaway message here: Dolphins aren't just able to copy tricks from each other, it also appears to have a social function of some kind.
Philippa Brakes, a doctoral student at the University of Exeter and a member of WDC, explained that learning such activities essentially eclipse the cross-generation process of natural selection. This “can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the type of behavior transmitted,” she said in a statement.
At present, it’s not clear if tail walking has any such pros or cons, but either way, it speaks volumes to something we are increasingly aware of, but are still scrambling to comprehend: Cetaceans – which include whales, dolphins, and porpoises – are incredibly intelligent.
They often have intricate social structures and ways of communicating that are unique not to just their own species but their own families or pods. Bottlenose dolphins can clearly memorize “new” vocabularies and can naturally learn to communicate with humans, using head or tails slaps to indicate where fishermen should cast their nets.
They are able to creatively solve problems and experience complex emotions like grief. They have a fantastic memory and can remember an individual dolphin’s unique vocalizations for a considerably long time. They are even able to recognize their own reflection in a mirror, something few species are able to do. Incest, infanticide, and general murder are also known to be practiced by certain dolphins.
With all this in mind, it’s not too surprising that they can teach each other tricks, and that they might enjoy doing it too.
Sadly, tail walking seems fated to disappear from this group of dolphins. In 2011, nine wild dolphins were tail walking, but several deaths meant that, by 2014, just two were doing an interspecies impersonation of Jesus every now and then.
[H/T: University of St. Andrews]