Scientists find evidence that dolphins have a tendency to show-off

Dolphins ‘show off’ like humans:

Dolphins can learn to ‘walk on their tail’ by copying each other: Imitation could save the species from climate change as it is a quicker way to adapt than natural selection

  • The dolphin was rescued in 1980s and spent time recovering in a dolphinarium
  • During her three-week stay the creature, Billie, saw other dolphins ‘tail walking’
  • She was never taught how to do it and was then released back to the wild  
  • Scientists spotted her performing a ‘tail walk’ years later with nine other animals
  • Find is the first example of dolphins teaching human tricks to its peers 

Dolphins can learn from each other to walk on their tail – and this intelligence could help save the species from climate change, a new study found.

Scientists say a dolphin who learned the complex trick in captivity has taught it to nine of her friends and family since she was released into the wild.

It marks the only known example of a mammal teaching human tricks to its peers in the wild without any help from a human trainer.

The skill allows dolphins to adapt new behaviours faster than they would through natural selection, potentially giving them the edge over rapid changes to their environment caused by global warming.

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Billie the bottlenose dolphin was rescued from a polluted creek in the 80s and spent time at a dolphinarium before she was released back into the wild. She was not taught how to tail walk but was later spotted performing the trick in the wild. Pictured left is Billie tailwalking

The research comes from experts at the University of Exeter and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, which is based in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

It is the latest chapter in the story of Billie the dolphin – a bottlenose who was rescued from a severely polluted creek in January 1988.

Billie was rehabilitated at a dolphinarium in Adelaide for several weeks, where she learned a trick known as the tailwalk by watching the performing peers she was housed with.

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The trick, which involves ‘standing’ upright on the tail and running backwards along the waterline, is a common part of dolphinarium routines and rarely seen in the wild.

Following her release back into the wild, Billie continued to perform the trick and by 2011 nine of her peers were copying her, according to the new study.

The frequency of the habit dropped off over time, researchers said, and by 2014 only two tailwalkers remained, both of whom performed the behaviour only sporadically.

Tail walking is the act of rising vertically out of the water and then moving back and forth across the surface (file photo). The behaviour is a standard part of the routine in most dolphinariums, but rarely occurs in the wild


Billie the dolphin was rescued from a polluted creek in January 1988, spending several weeks in a dolphinarium in Adelaide.

While housed with the performing dolphins, Billie learnt a trick known as tail walking by watching them go through their act.

During a tail walk, a dolphin rises vertically out of the water and moves forward or backwards across it. 

The move rarely occurs in the wild but is a standard part of the routine in almost all dolphinaria.

Once released back into the wild Billie began performing this unique behaviour in front of her peers in the pod.

Billie’s tail walking would be nothing more than an interesting example of individual social learning if she alone had performed it.

Yet soon other dolphins copied it and by 2011 nine dolphins had been observed tail walking in the wild.

After 2011 the number of dolphins tail walking in the wild declined with the most prolific tail-walker dying in 2014, leaving only two remaining tail-walkers, both of whom performed the behaviour only sporadically.

Tailwalking now seems destined to disappear from the community and is a dying fad, researchers said, but the finding may have implications for the dolphins as they fight to cope with global warming.

An ability to quickly imitate others could help the animals adapt to develop new survival skills faster than natural selection allows.

New foraging or hunting behaviours could quickly spread between pod-members as the environment changes over the next few decades. 

Researchers followed the behaviours of Billie and her pod over the course of three decades for their paper.

Dr Mike Bossley, of Whale and Dolphin Conservation and the study’s lead author, said: ‘I knew Billie’s history and was able to track her behaviour and that of the other dolphins in the community over an extended period.

The find marks the only known example of a mammal teaching human tricks to its peers in the wild without any help from a human trainer (file photo)

‘This enabled me to observe tail walking spread through the community and then its eventual fading away.’ 

Dr Luke Rendell, a dolphin specialist from the University of St Andrews, added the study provided a ‘revealing insight’ into the role of imitation in dolphin communities. 

Co-author Philippa Brakes said the existence of imitation in wild dolphins has important implications for conservation.

She said: ‘Understanding more about the social transmission of behaviour will help us predict how different species may respond to changes in their environment.

‘The rapid spread of socially learnt behaviours can operate much faster than the intergenerational process of natural selection, which can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the type of behaviour transmitted.’

The study was published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters. 


Animal intelligence is a difficult thing to measure and is ever harder to quantify for scientists.

Animal behaviour experts have studied a wide range of species’ in their natural habitats as well as in captivity to try and gain a deeper understanding of how their intelligence levels compares to that of humans and other species.

Many animals simply have innate behaviours – in-built and instinctive behaviours that require no conscious thought 

However some animals are capable of complex neurological processes that requires conscious thought and problem-solving ability. 

It can be hard to rank these animals but scientists have found several animals that are noticeably more intelligent than others in the animal kingdom.

In no particular order: 


Pigs are surprisingly intelligent animals, with some scientists suggesting they are cleverer than dogs and cats.

They have brilliant long-term memories and find mazes an easy task.

Scientists have even trained them to use joysticks to move a cursor around a computer screen for a reward.

They can also learn tricks — from opening cage doors to jumping through hoops.

Pigs boast an emotional intelligence shared by few other creatures.

They are curious and capable of empathy, with the ability deliberately deceive other pigs and even anticipate needs and intentions.


One way that scientists measure intelligence is something called the mirror-self recognition test which looks to see if an animal can recognise itself in a mirror. 

This is often done by placing a coloured marker on its body and then showing them a mirror.

If they recognise it as their reflection they will try and remove the coloured item.

Many animals get confused when presented with a mirror and think it is either another animal of their species and either get scared and run off or try and fight it.  

When subjected to this testing the dolphins tried to remove it, indicating they were able to recognise themselves.


Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and share around 99 per cent of their genetic code with humans. 

A piece of previous research gave a cognitive test to a group of chimps of all ages to measure their mental processing.

The exam involved remembering where a list of numbers – from one to nine – were located on a touch screen monitor and flashed for a split second. 

Adult primates and humans performed to around the same standard but adolescent chimps appeared to have a heightened ability for the cognitive task. 

These young primates remembered each number’s location with great accuracy, leading the researchers to think they posses a form of photographic memory.  


Elephants are the largest terrestrial animal in the world and have some of the largest and most complex brains as well. 

The giants can spend their entire lives in large matriarchal groups and develop deep emotional relationships with one another. 

They are capable to living for several decades and live way beyond their reproductive age. 

These older females are no longer able to conceive or give birth yet still help in the raising of the youngsters. 

The mere presence of post-reproductive lifespan is important as it says they no longer follow the primal desire to reproduce all the time.

They are able to recognise that by aiding the survival of the group’s young, they are also optimising their own reproductive success as their own genetic information passes down successfully to more generations.

Another study into the animal also found that they may be able to understand languages spoken by humans. 


An octopus is one of the most intelligent animals in the animal kingdom, a remarkable feat for an invertebrate. 

In scientific research that requires animal subjects, an additional form is often required if it includes vertebrates – often the only exception id the octopus due to its heightened intelligence. 

Most marine invertebrates have very little in the way of cognitive ability but the eight-tentacle beast has incredible mental processing ability. 

In a previous piece of research, scientists looked to see if they would be able to tell apart two different people. 

Two individuals interacted with a mature octopus, with one acting extremely friendly and another being cold and standoffish. 

When the two people entered their living area, the octopus would ignore the impersonal one in favour of the more friendly guest.

Intelligence is just one of the fantastic traits that differentiates them from other animals.

Part of the cephelapod class, they have three hearts and it is also speculated they can detect ultrasound waves n a similar way to bats and use this to survivearound underground volcanoes and flee before an eruption occurs. 

Their lack of a skeleton is also put to good use as they can fit through tiny gaps and chnage shape with ease. 

They have chromataphores in their skin which can change colour as camouflage and they can contract the surface of their skin to change texture – another form of camouflage which is useful when blending in with both sea bed and coral reef. 

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