Integrating Genetic, Environmental, and Social Networks to Reveal Transmission Pathways of a Dolphin Foraging Innovation

Sonja Wild, William J.E. Hoppitt, Simon J. Allen, Michael Krützen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Cultural behavior, which is transmitted among conspecifics through social learning [1], is found across various taxa [2–6]. Vertical social transmission from parent to offspring [7] is thought to be adaptive because of the parental generation being more skilled than maturing individuals. It is found throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in species with prolonged parental care, e.g., [8, 9]. Social learning can also occur among members of the same generation [4, 10, 11] or between older, non-parental individuals and younger generations [7] via horizontal or oblique transmission, respectively. Extensive work on primate culture has shown that horizontal transmission of foraging behavior is biased toward species with broad cultural repertoires [12] and those with increased levels of social tolerance [13, 14], such as great apes. Vertical social transmission has been established as the primary transmission mechanism of foraging behaviors in the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) population of Shark Bay, Western Australia [6, 9, 15, 16]. Here, we investigated the spread of another foraging strategy, “shelling” [17], whereby some dolphins in this population feed on prey trapped inside large marine gastropod shells. Using a multi-network version of “network-based diffusion analysis” (NBDA), we show that shelling behavior spreads primarily through non-vertical social transmission. By statistically accounting for both environmental and genetic influences, our findings thus represent the first evidence of non-vertical transmission of a foraging tactic in toothed whales. This research suggests there are multiple transmission pathways of foraging behaviors in dolphins, highlighting the similarities between cetaceans and great apes in the nature of the transmission of cultural behaviors. Video Abstract:[Figrer presented]

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3024-3030.e4
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number15
Publication statusPublished - 3 Aug 2020


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