Dolphins have been spotted teaching each other to “walk on water” according to researchers, suggesting even greater intelligence than previously suspected.
Researchers in Australia made the discovery after observing that dolphins in Adelaide learned tail-walking from an animal called Billie who had spend time in a dolphinarium after being rescued.
Tail-walking is a trick that dolphins are taught in captivity in most dolphinariums and involves the animal rising vertically out of the water and moving across it.
Billie learned tail-walking after being rescued by watching other dolphins perform for fish.
The behaviour was observed in the wild when Billie was released, even being performed by other dolphins she had begun to associate with.
The scientists said that if Billie was the only dolphin to have been observed performing the trick, then it would just have been an interesting example of individual social learning.
However, when she returned to the wild the other dolphins in the local community began to copy her behaviour, meaning that by 2011 nine wild dolphins had been observed performing it.
Although the number of dolphins that had learned the behaviour has now diminished, that other wild dolphins could learn it third-hand has important implications for the intelligence of the mammals.
In a study led by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation alongside the Universities of St Andrews and Exeter, scientists have established how dolphins learned it in the wild.
Dr Mike Bossley, of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said that he recognised the significance of tail-walking after studying Adelaide dolphins for more than 30 years.
“I knew Billie’s history and was able to track her behaviour and that of the other dolphins in the community over an extended period,” he said.
“This enabled me to observe tail-walking spread through the community and then its eventual fade away.”
University of St Andrews researcher Dr Luke Rendell, a co-author who specialises in studying cultural behaviour in whales and dolphins, 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.”
The research will be published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters in September.