Behavior Genetics

, Volume 40, Issue 5, pp 706–714 | Cite as

Genes or Culture: Are Mitochondrial Genes Associated with Tool Use in Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops sp.)?

  • K. Bacher
  • S. Allen
  • A. K. Lindholm
  • L. Bejder
  • M. KrützenEmail author


Some bottlenose dolphins use marine sponges as foraging tools (‘sponging’), which appears to be socially transmitted from mothers mainly to their female offspring. Yet, explanations alternative to social transmission have been proposed. Firstly, the propensity to engage in sponging might be due to differences in diving ability caused by variation of mitochondrial genes coding for proteins of the respiratory chain. Secondly, the cultural technique of sponging may have selected for changes in these same genes (or other autosomal ones) among its possessors. We tested whether sponging can be predicted by mitochondrial coding genes and whether these genes are under selection. In 29 spongers and 54 non-spongers from two study sites, the non-coding haplotype at the HVRI locus was a significant predictor of sponging, whereas the coding mitochondrial genes were not. There was no evidence of selection in the investigated genes. Our study shows that mitochondrial gene variation is unlikely to be a viable alternative to cultural transmission as a primary driver of tool use in dolphins.


Social learning Gene culture co-evolution Bottlenose dolphins Tool use 



This project was supported by Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort, Shark Bay Resources and grants from the National Geographic Society, Seaworld Research and Rescue Foundation, W.V. Scott Foundation, Claraz-Schenkung and A.H. Schultz-Stiftung. We would like to thank C. van Schaik, M. van Nordwijk, as well as L. Rendell and one anonymous reviewer for constructive comments on the manuscript. We are especially indebted to Anna Kopps, Corinne Ackermann and Bill Sherwin, as well as numerous research assistants and volunteers who helped collecting data in Shark Bay. Biopsy sampling was conducted under Department of Conservation and Land Management Sampling Permit SF002958 (to M.K.). Ethics approval was obtained by the University of New South Wales (99_52) and the University of Zurich. Samples were transferred to Zurich under the cetacean permit 2004-55242 from the Department of Environment and Conservation (Australia) and exchanged under institutional CITES permits (AU069 and CH-019).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • K. Bacher
    • 1
  • S. Allen
    • 2
  • A. K. Lindholm
    • 3
  • L. Bejder
    • 2
  • M. Krützen
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Evolutionary Genetics Group, Anthropological Institute and MuseumUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit, Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research, School of Biological Sciences and BiotechnologyMurdoch UniversityMurdochAustralia
  3. 3.Animal Behavior Group, Institute for Evolutionary Biology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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