Dolphins performing acrobatic tricks have, time and again, fascinated and mesmerized people. As early as 1860s, capturers took dolphins and other cetaceans (e.g. whales and porpoises) out of their aquatic habitats and held them in captivity in various parts of Europe and North America. At first, they kept them in a dolphinarium mainly as an amusement for a paying audience. Later on, they discovered that these aquatic marvels could be taught to perform tricks. Since then, people have gravitated to various dolphin shows as one of their “must-dos” off their bucket list.
Dolphins learning tricks
The tricks that dolphins can do seem limitless. Apart from their fantastic leaps and bounds, they can do complex tricks like tail-walking, playing ball, synchronized swimming, and rhythmic gymnastics. How do they learn these tricks? Trainers use positive reinforcement method to teach dolphins the jaw-dropping tricks. Accordingly, they reward them with food whenever they do a trick correctly. Watching them do these tricks, though, seems that they perform not only for the food reward but also for their own enjoyment based on their playful nature.
Wild dolphins’ ballistic jumps
Frequently, wild dolphins leap above the water surface. They do so by swimming fast near the surface, and then execute a ballistic jump. This behavior, called porpoising, seems a demonstration of their playful behavior. Nevertheless, another hypothetical reason surfaced. Accordingly, this porpoising behavior points to the benefit it furnishes. The friction up in the air is less; therefore, porpoising would help save dolphin energy.1
Seeing dolphins doing leaps and bounds in the wild is something that is truly remarkable yet not unusual. However, a pod of playful aquatic creatures in the wild were observed doing a trick rarely seen in the wild. Furthermore, the trick was something that they learned from a formerly captive dolphin.
Wild dolphins’ tail-walking trick
Recently, a study2 reported what they observed in wild dolphins. They saw a pod (particularly, a group consisting of nine dolphins) off the Australian coast that learned from a previously captive dolphin how to “walk” on water using their tail.
Tail walking is one of the fundamental tricks taught to captive dolphins. It involves rising vertically out of the water. Then, the dolphin moves forward or backward on top of the water. This skill is rarely seen in wild dolphins.2
Whale and Dolphin Conservation, together with the universities of St Andrews and Exeter, conducted a thirty-year study where they revealed that dolphins in the wild were able to learn a human-coached tail-walking trick from Billie. Billie is a rescued dolphin from a creek near Adelaide’s Patawalonga River in 1988. The dolphin was in captivity temporarily. During its captivity, it learned how to tail-walk. When it was released into the wild, it taught its companions by continuing to demonstrate the skill. Soon after, its peers copied it. In 2011, nine dolphins began tail walking. However, this spectacular display of “walking” by fins turned out to be just a fad. The number of wild dolphins that tail walk declined over time. As of 2014, only two of them remained to demonstrate the skill. 2
Dolphins, just as all the other living beings, deserve an inhabitable space in order to thrive and keep surviving. The ability of the dolphins to imitate skills could be used in spreading learnt behaviours that could be beneficial to their survival. The lengthy study that tracked the tail-walking behavior of Billie and the local dolphin community for years revealed an important insight. Accordingly, dolphins learning a behavior from each other can persist from one generation to the next. However, there is a tendency that certain learnt behaviors will fade, and, inopportunely, vanish through time.
— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga
1 Weihs, D. (2002). “Dynamics of Dolphin Porpoising Revisited”. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 42 (5): 1071–1078. doi:10.1093/icb/42.5.1071
2 Whale and Dolphin Conservation. (2018 Aug. 29). WILD DOLPHINS LEARN FROM EACH OTHER TO ‘WALK ON WATER’…BUT IT’S JUST A FAD. Retrieved from https://uk.whales.org/news/2018/08/wild-dolphins-learn-from-each-other-to-walk-on-waterbut-its-just-fad
3 Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). (2014 Nov. 5). Dolphins tailwalking – Port River, Adelaide | Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tn5TJfR3k4