In the world of dolphins who live in and around the Port River in Adelaide, Australia, the latest craze is tail walking.
It all started when an injured dolphin called Billie was taken to a theme park for veterinary treatment, and spent some time watching other dolphins learning a particular trick from their trainers.
Billie must have thought it was quite a cool trick, because when she was returned to the Port River, she proceeded to teach it to her friends and family.
Now it seems to have caught on with more and more dolphins, and Marianna Boorman of Dolphin Dock talks about it in a video she captured of two dolphins, Wave and Bianca, impressing their friends:
Tail walking is not a behavior that’s natural to dolphins. It has to be learned. Marine circuses like Marine Land, where Billie spent time recovering from his injury, teach it to dolphins as part of entertaining the crowds.
But no dolphin had ever been seen doing this in the wild until Billie taught herself how to do it at Marine Land – leaping out of the water backwards and moving backward on her tail.
As Marianna describes it:
Billie had become trapped in the Patawolonga near Glenelg and was placed in captivity in Marine Land for a short period of time. Luckily she was released back in to the wild where she made her way back to the Port River. It was in the Port River that Billie was first seen tail walking.
… For a long time Billie was the only dolphin in the Port River that tail walked. We were therefore incredibly surprised in 2006 when we saw Billie’s friend Wave tail walking. More recently we have seen more of the Port River Dolphins tail walking including Bianca, Juliette, Angel and Wave’s 6-year-old calf Ripple.
We have seen Bubbles, Marianna and Tallula, three of the male calves attempting tail walks but it has been very sporadic and they have not continued this behavior. It therefore appears at this stage to only be the female dolphins that are tail walking and we are still trying to work out if there is a reason behind this behavior.
One of our very energetic dolphins, Wave can be seen tail walking very regularly. She is an incredibly active dolphin and we often see her do several tail walks in a row. One evening in the space of a few hours we saw her do more than 60 tail walks.
Passing on learned behavior is the scientific definition of “culture”, and for a long time, humans liked to believe that other animals all operate instinctively and don’t have culture. “A very large part of their behavior is learned from each other. Different groups behave in different ways. That’s culture.”
But this has now been completely disproved, and new examples of nonhuman culture surface almost every week.
Hal Whitehead, of Dalhousie University in Canada, has spent years studying whales and dolphins all over the world.
“The more we look at them,” he says, “the more it seems that a very large part of their behavior is learned from each other. Different groups behave in different ways. That’s culture.”