Dolphins can learn from each other to “walk on water” and this intelligence could help save the species as the world’s climate changes, a new study has found.
Captive dolphins are taught tricks to entertain crowds in amusement parks. Among their repertoire is tail walking, whereby a dolphin rises vertically out of the water and moves forward or backwards across the surface.
Scientists found the skill was passed on to their wild cousins when one temporarily housed with the performing creatures learnt the skill.
When released, the act was taken up with gusto by the pod but over time it seemed the dolphins got bored and fewer and fewer bothered to do it.
British scientists said the findings has implications for the intelligent marine animals as they cope with global warming as it could help them develop new survival skills.
How wild dolphins learned and copied the new skill was based on three decades of observations of Billie.
She was rescued from a polluted creek in January 1988, spending several weeks in a dolphinarium in Adelaide.
While being housed with the performing dolphins, Billie learned tail walking by watching others go through their act.When released she began performing the behaviour in front of her peers in the pod.
Soon other dolphins copied it and 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. Lead author Dr Mike Bossley at the Wiltshire -based wildlife charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation noted it was only because he had been studying the Adelaide dolphins for more than 30 years that the significance of tail walking was recognised.
His co-author, reader in biology Dr Luke Rendell of St Andrews University, 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.”
Co-author Philippa Brakes said the existence of cultural behaviour has important implications for conservation.
She said: “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.”