Dolphins Use Tools and Pass Technique on to Offspring

Written by on October 22, 2012 in Marine Life
Bottlenose Dolphin mother and calf. Photo credit: Emma Jugovich, NOAA.

Bottlenose Dolphin mother and calf. Photo credit: Emma Jugovich, NOAA.

“Sponging” is a technique used by bottlenose dolphins to protect their noses while foraging.  They carry a sponge on their nose to prevent any damage to it while dislodging fish or crustaceans from the rocky ocean floor.  This behavior has been recorded since the 1980s.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales studied bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, and found that sponging has been around for much longer because the technique has been passed down for generations, from mother to offspring.

“What’s unique about the sponging behavior is that only about five percent of dolphins use the sponges as a tool, and it’s only one maternal line,” explained Dr. Anna Kopps, a biologist at the University of New South Wales.

Researchers believe that it was started by one female in a single “innovation event” and was passed on to her descendants in the area.  Young dolphins stay with their mothers for about four years, giving them plenty of time to learn important behavior.  Males also learn sponging, but they do not pass it on.

The researchers found that this behavior may have existed for up to 180 years in Shark Bay.  Kopps explained that “we were interested in how long it has been passed on because it is rare for an animal species to pass learned tool use behavior through several generations.”

“It’s interesting that the behavior doesn’t spread to the entire population and it doesn’t go extinct either,” said Kopps.

Bottlenose Dolphin mother and calf. Photo credit: NOAA/NMFS/SWFSC.

Bottlenose Dolphin mother and calf. Photo credit: NOAA/NMFS/SWFSC.

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Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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