A study found that foraging techniques can be socially acquired – something unprecedented for non-hominids.
A new study by the University of Leeds, UK, showed for the first time that dolphins can learn foraging techniques – searching and exploiting food resources – not just from their mother, but also from their peers. The research was published in the journal Current Biology.
Dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia, are well known to scientists, as they have been closely studied for over 35 years. In the mid-1990s, the first cases of a new and extraordinary foraging technique called “shelling” were recorded.
Shelling is done when the prey hides inside large empty shells of giant sea snails found in Shark Bay. Dolphins use their beaks to bring these shells to the surface and then shake the food with their mouths.
Foraging techniques in Shark Bay are usually passed on from mother dolphins to their young, what researchers call vertical social transmission, considered the only way for dolphins to learn. But the new study shows that some of the Shark Bay dolphins have actually learned this foraging method from their peers.
This suggests that these baby dolphins watch their close companions using the technique – what the researchers call horizontal social transmission. These findings represent the first evidence of cultural similarities between dolphins and great apes. Chimpanzees, gorillas and, of course, humans, also demonstrate a wide range of socially learned foraging behaviors.
“These results were quite surprising, as dolphins tend to be conservative, with calves following a ‘do-as-mother-does’ strategy for learning foraging behaviours,” said researcher Sonja Wild, the study’s leader, in a note.
Check out in the video below how dolphins use the technique to get a meal: