The Dolphin Innovation Project was initiated in 2007 to investigate, for the first time, tool use in bottlenose dolphins in the western gulf of Shark Bay, Western Australia. In keeping with our name, we seek to combine both established and innovate techniques in studying some of the ocean’s most innovative inhabitants.
The Dolphin Innovation Project confirmed that social learning via cultural transmission, rather than gene variation, is a primary driver of tool use (“sponging”) in dolphins. Using sponges as tools, dolphins are able to find novel sources of food that dolphins without this know-how cannot access.
During our first field season at this site, we also captured the first photographic evidence that revealed the function of “shelling” – another foraging specialisation. Some dolphins have developed the skills necessary to lift large trumpet or bailer shells to the surface, shaking them about until the water drains out and the hapless fish hiding inside falls into their mouths. This foraging innovation has not been documented anywhere else in the world.
Some of the intriguing social politics first discovered by the Dolphin Alliance Project in the eastern gulf of Shark Bay can be witnessed in the western gulf, where we have identified and continue to study numerous first- and second-order alliances of males.
The first 10 seasons (austral winters) of field research with the Dolphin Innovation Project has yielded some 4,500 dolphin group surveys, formed the basis of eight post-graduate theses (with three more in the works), and we’ve had our 11th peer-reviewed journal article published. 2017 will bring our 11th field season, in which the Dolphin Innovation Project will be expanding its endeavours into other locations and species around Western Australia. We will keep you posted!