‘Bullingdon Club’ Dolphins Form Elite Societies and Cliques, Scientists Find

Hannah Furness, Telegraph (London), August 1, 2012

Wild bottlenose dolphins bond over their use of tools, with distinct cliques and classes forming over decades as a result of their skills, scientists have found.

The communities, which have been compared with societies such as the Bullingdon Club in humans, mean the aquatic animals share their knowledge only with those in their own circle, passing it down the family line.

The findings mean the traits of “inclusive inheritability” and culture are no longer considered exclusive to human beings.

Observing wild dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, researchers from Georgetown University used hunting tools as a marker of dolphin societal habits.

Noticing some dolphins in the area used a sponge to protect their beaks while hunting, they attempted to discover why the practice had not spread.

They found the useful tool had first been used by a single dolphin nicknamed “Sponging Eve”, after she scrape her nose while foraging for food in rough sand.

To solve the problem, she broke off a piece of sea sponge to protect her, going on to teach the behaviour to her offsping.

But two decades later, knowledge of the tool had not spread among the whole dolphin population in the area.

Scientists observed 36 spongers and 69 non-spongers in the area over a 22 year period, taking careful note of their relationships.

They found: “Spongers were more cliquish, had more sponger associates and stronger bonds with each other than with non-spongers.

“Like humans who preferentially associate with others who share their subculture, tool-using dolphins prefer others like themselves, strongly suggesting that sponge tool-use is a cultural behaviour.”

This tendency to associate with those most like themselves is, scientists believe, a “critical role in human (sub)cultures”, and “may be true for dolphin society as well”.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, a team led by Janet Mann reported: “To date, no material subcultures have been identified outside of humans.

“Recently, many biologists are moving beyond genetic inheritance to examine the processes involved in inclusive heritability, which includes culture.

“We sometimes think that traits such as culture are exclusively human, but a growing body of literature proves otherwise.”

Remarkably, researchers believe the cliques are formed for social reasons rather than practical, saying: “As sponging is a solitary behaviour, affiliation between spongers would not be based on collective foraging, but rather on identifying other individuals as spongers”

“We suggest that spongers also share in-group identity, but affiliation is a consequence of similarity in the socially learned trait, a scenario that resonates with human culture,” they said.

The study also found the behaviour was stronger in females, who were better at maintaining alliances, noting: “Once sponging behaviour is established, female spongers formed clear cliques.”

Although in-group identity has been noted in other animals, such as killer whales and budgerigars, the dolphin sub-cultures are believed to be the result of socially-learned behaviour rather than inate traits.


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  • I’m surprised the do-gooders haven’t put on their wet suits and trained the less-fortunate dolphins how to sponge.

    • Tarczan

      There is a clear need for a “No dolphin left behind” law.

    • Sandra Fluke will be bringing taxpayer paid feminine contraceptive sponges to the dolphins.

      • The__Bobster

        How many male dolphins will be spongeworthy?

  • Church_of_Jed

    More proof that we shouldn’t mourn the dolphins that are killed in tuna nets.

    Dolphins that dare segregate themselves away from the great Dolphin mass should become as extinct as the White privilege that separates Whiteness from the Great Browning Effect.

  • Chimp Master Rules

    I’m thinking the ones always hanging around docks and mooching food off tourists are the negroes of the group.   Always looking for that gibbsme . . .

  • I like the term, “inclusive inheritability”. It has a nice ring to it.

    Both whites and blacks share this trait only they’re expressed differently.

    Whites tend to value education and pass it on to their young. Blacks have other ‘inclusive inheritability’ values which are less productive. Passing on victimization doesn’t get you very far.

  • The Southern Poverty Law Center how has grounds to add an entire species to its list of extremist hate groups.