Clever Dolphins Learn To Walk On The Wild Side Just For Fun

Apparently, it’s the latest fashion. Studies in
Australia by WDCS have revealed a growing number of dolphins in the wild are teaching themselves to walk.

WDCS’s Dr Mike Bossley has been observing Adelaide’s
PortRiver dolphins in
Australia for the past 24 years and has documented spectacular tail walking in two adult female dolphins, Billie and Wave. But, amazingly, it seems that tail walking is spreading through the
PortRiver dolphin community with four other individuals now having been seen perfecting their walking techniques in recent months.

Wave’s calf Tallula, Bianca and her calf Hope, and calf Bubbles have all taken up the pastime, and the fun they have had doing so has been recently documented by volunteer WDCS dolphin photographers, Marianna Boorman and Barbara Saberton.

Watch footage of tailwalking on YouTube.

Tail walking is very rare in the wild and in thousands of hours of observation only one other dolphin has ever been observed tail walking in the
PortRiver, and then only once. The Port Adelaide dolphins are now tail walking many times each day.

The spread of tail walking in this way might seem, on the surface (excuse the pun) like a bit of fun, but there is a serious and fascinating cultural aspect linked to these strange goings-on.

“Culture in the wider sense of the term, defined as ‘learned behaviour characteristic of a community’, is now frequently on show in the
PortRiver”, says Dr Bossley. “This cultural behaviour is of great significance for conservation.

“Cultural behaviours in animals have been identified in several species, particularly chimpanzees. However, most if not all the cultural behaviours described to-date have been of a utilitarian nature, mainly to do with obtaining food. A well know chimpanzee example is using a twig to extract termites from a nest in the Gombe Stream reserve.

“The only dolphin example seen up to now is in
West Australia, where a small group of dolphins habitually carry a sponge on the end of their jaw while fishing to protect them from fish spines. As far as we are aware, tail walking has no practical function and is performed just for fun - akin to human dancing or gymnastics. As such, it represents an internationally important example of the behavioural similarities between humans and dolphins.”

These new tail walkers are yet to totally master the behaviour. Adult female Bianca is the best of the new crop and her tail walks are beginning to rival Wave’s. However, like all young animals learning to walk, it seems that these calves are still at a rudimentary stage.

Tail walking was first seen observed in Billie, who appears to have learnt it during a brief period of incarceration in Marineland in early 1988. For many years Billie was the only tail walking dolphin but about eight years ago another adult female (Wave) also began performing this spectacular behaviour.

“The demonstration of culture in non human animals has important ramifications for conservation”, Bossley concludes. “The discovery of cultural behaviours in some species will require a whole new approach to conservation so that the cultures of specific communities become recognised as worthy of protection. “

Adelaide’s dolphins are not performing operas, nor composing symphonies as far as we know. But tail walking in dolphins adds more evidence to the contention that dolphins are so similar to humans that they are worthy of a special ethical status: that of ‘non human persons’.

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