Schools Of Dolphins

Schools of dolphins in Australia’s Shark Bay are well studied. The Shark Bay Dolphin project started back in 1982 when some scientists stepped out on Monkey Mia beach and found the bottlenose dolphins were friendly. In fact they would come in to the shallows to greet the waders and be hand fed.

Now the schools of dolphins are some of the best studied, but they also have some unusual habits. The bottlenose dolphins go foraging, as regulations on feeding make sure that they don’t become spongers on the generosity of tourists in fishing boats.

Foraging, though, has its hazards. They have to stick their noses into things that other fish wish they wouldn’t and that can have painful consequences – certainly for the fish. The Shark Bay schools of dolphins have an answer to that problem. They stick a sponge on their nose for protection.

It seems that they have been sponging their noses for some time and Kopps and Sherwin have been puzzling over how that is taught (1, 2). Is this something that genetics passes along, or was it something that one clever girl shows the others?

As nobody speaks dolphin, the next best thing is to simulate how long it would take to produce the behavior patterns observed in the bay. Computers being wonderful tools, they cranked out results in short order, but they did not correspond with the actual observations.

It seems that social learning is the answer. So we can think of this as schools of dolphins have home schooling to learn the best sponging techniques. (To catch their own fish, of course.) Sponging from the tourist voyeurs is a no-no. In any case, sponging by Shark Bay schools of dolphins has been going on long before the tourists – about 150 years more or less.


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