Tail walking in a bottlenose dolphin community: the rise and fall of an arbitrary cultural 'fad'

M. Bossley, A. Steiner, P. Brakes, J. Shrimpton, C. Foster, L. Rendell

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1 Citation (Scopus)


Social learning of adaptive behaviour is widespread in animal populations, but the spread of arbitrary behaviours is less common. In this paper, we describe the rise and fall of a behaviour called tail walking, where a dolphin forces the majority of its body vertically out of the water and maintains the position by vigourously pumping its tail, in a community of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus). The behaviour was introduced into the wild following the rehabilitation of a wild female individual, Billie, who was temporarily co-housed with trained dolphins in a dolphinarium. This individual was sighted performing the behaviour seven years after her 1988 release, as was one other female dolphin named Wave. Initial production of the behaviour was rare, but following Billie's death two decades after her release, Wave began producing the behaviour at much higher rates, and several other dolphins in the community were subsequently sighted performing the behaviour. Social learning is the most likely mechanism for the introduction and spread of this unusual behaviour, which has no known adaptive function. These observations demonstrate the potential strength of the capacity for spontaneous imitation in bottlenose dolphins, and help explain the origin and spread of foraging specializations observed in multiple populations of this genus.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20180314
Number of pages5
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number9
Early online date5 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2018


  • Social learning
  • Cultural transmission
  • Cetacean
  • Bottlenose dolphin


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