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Last updated on April 21, 2014 at 11:58 EDT

Scientists Observe Wild Dolphins Tail-Walking On Water

August 19, 2008

Scientists observing a group of wild dolphins say one dolphin is apparently teaching other members of her group to walk on their tails, a behavior usually seen only after training in captivity.

A group of dolphins along the south Australian coast near Adelaide are exhibiting the tail-walking behavior.

One of them spent a short time after illness in a dolphinarium 20 years ago and may have picked up the trick there.

Tail-walk tuition has not been seen before, and observers suggest the habit may emerge as a form of “culture” among this group, according to scientists studying the group.

“We can’t for the life of us work out why they do it,” said Mike Bossley from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), one of the scientists who have been monitoring the group on the Port River estuary.

He said his team is doing systematic observations now to determine if there’s something that may trigger it, but so far they haven’t found anything.

Billie, one of the females in the group, spent a few weeks in a local dolphinarium in the 1980s, recovering from malnutrition and sickness, a consequence of having been trapped in a marina lock.

She received no training there, but may have seen others tail-walking.

Other females in the group have now picked up the habit. It is seen rarely in the wild, and the obvious inference is that they have learned it from Billie.

Bossley said this indicates that they do learn from each other, which is not a surprise really, but it does also seem that they exhibit elements of what in humans is called ‘cultural’ behavior.

“These are things that groups develop and are passed between individuals and that come to define those groups, such as language or dancing; and it would seem that among the Port River dolphins we may have an incipient tail-walking culture.”

Scientists say this “cultural” transmission of ideas and skills has been documented in apes, while dolphins off the coast of Western Australia are known to teach their young to use sponges as an aid when gathering food.

Image Courtesy WDCS

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