Wild Dolphin Teaches Others Tail Walking TricksBillie, a wild dolphin in the Port River, South Australia has been teaching other dolphins in the river the art of ‘tailwalking’, a behaviour which is extremely rare in the wild but is a trick much loved by dolphinarium trainers all over the world.
Scientists from WDCS have been stunned to witness a number of dolphins from a group living in the waters off Adelaide, Australia, performing the trick, which is usually only seen in captivity, when dolphins have been trained to entertain the public by surging vertically out of the water and then propelling themselves backwards while remaining almost fully upright in the air, ‘walking’ through the water.
It would appear that Billie, a female bottlenose dolphin, picked up the odd behaviour during a short time in captivity almost 20 years ago. In the early 1980s Billie became trapped behind a marina lock and, unable to return to the sea, she was captured by the local dolphinarium. Billie was kept in a concrete tank for three weeks before being released back into the wild, with a ‘3’ branded on her dorsal fin to make her easily recognisable.
Despite receiving no formal training during this time, it would appear that Billie observed her cell mates being fed for performing tailwalking tricks, and learned the behaviour for herself. After she was released from the dolphinarium, Billie returned to her usual haunts and it seems she has passed on the skills she acquired during her captivity.
Dr Mike Bossley, of WDCS Australia said: “I have observed all the local dolphins over a number of years, and have watched Billie occasionally performing tailwalks in the years since her release, sometimes in the bow wave of large ships, which is an awesome sight!
| “About five years ago another female dolphin called Wave began performing the same behaviour, but does so with much greater regularity than Billie. A third adult female dolphin has also been seen tail walking.”|
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It is not known why the Adelaide dolphins have begun performing this behaviour, although observations are now being carried out to determine whether the behaviour might be a form of play or communication, and also to find out whether other members of the dolphin group will inherit the tailwalking skills.
Dr Mike Bossley commented: “Irrespective of function, it would seem that tail walking in the Adelaide waters is another example of cultural behaviour in large brained animals. By cultural behaviour we mean a behaviour that is transmitted between individuals and becomes a characteristic of a particular social group.”
The most famous example of this is Jane Goodall’s discovery that apes used twigs to capture termites in the Gombe Stream reserve, and more recently examples have been found in dolphins, including a small group of dolphins in Western Australia which hold sponges over their noses as they search for spiny fish on the ocean floor.
Dr Mike Bossley added: “If tailwalking is a true cultural behaviour, it will gradually spread through the local population, probably by being adopted by youngsters. WDCS will maintain its quiet, non invasive observations of these enigmatic animals and continue to document the behaviour of these wild, free dolphins.”
Cathy Williamson, Anti-captivity Campaigner for WDCS said: “This behaviour by the Adelaide dolphins demonstrates their intelligence and is even more proof that these animals are unsuitable for confinement in captivity, where they are unable to express natural behaviour or form normal social groups with other animals.”
Billie and Wave are both part of WDCSs adopt-a-dolphin program.
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