Evidence of teaching in atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) by mother dolphins foraging in the presence of their calves


Teaching is a powerful form of social learning, but there is little systematic evidence that it occurs in species other than humans. Using long-term video archives the foraging behaviors by mother Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) were observed when their calves were present and when their calves were not present, including in the presence of non-calf conspecifics. The nine mothers we observed chased prey significantly longer and made significantly more referential body-orienting movements in the direction of the prey during foraging events when their calves were present than when their calves were not present, regardless of whether they were foraging alone or with another non-calf dolphin. Although further research into the potential consequences for the naïve calves is still warranted, these data based on the maternal foraging behavior are suggestive of teaching as a social-learning mechanism in nonhuman animals.

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  1. 1.

    One mother, Little Gash, was observed foraging without her calf present both as an adult and as a juvenile. When group means were compared including Little Gash there were no significant differences between adults and juveniles for either chase latencies, t (8) = 0.05, P = 0.96, or body-orienting movements, t (8) = 0.41, = 0.69. Both the mean chase latencies, M A  = 3.67 and M J  = 6.89, and mean number of body-orienting movements, M A  = 0.5 and M J  = 1.0, for Little Gash were comparable as an adult and as a juvenile.

  2. 2.

    It is important to note that research in captivity (Pack and Herman 1995) has demonstrated the ability of dolphins to perceive and recognize objects through either vision or echolocation. In addition, their perceptions are readily shared or integrated across the senses, regardless of which modality the dolphin originally perceived the external stimuli. However, the sounds emitted from the dolphins were not measured in the present study, but should be looked at in future research in order to determine what sensory information the calf is receiving.


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We would like to thank Stan Kuczaj and Jesse Bering for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript, and John Bender, Miley Fishero, Megan Rothrock, Melissa Ingui, Wisline Shepherd, Sheryl Spencer, and the Wild Dolphin Project for their assistance on the project.

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Correspondence to Courtney E. Bender.

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Bender, C.E., Herzing, D.L. & Bjorklund, D.F. Evidence of teaching in atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) by mother dolphins foraging in the presence of their calves. Anim Cogn 12, 43–53 (2009) doi:10.1007/s10071-008-0169-9

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  • Teaching
  • Dolphins
  • Social learning
  • Foraging