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Researchers: Killers Whales Demonstrate 'Cultural Learning'

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SNOWBIRD, Utah -- Killer whales, which lure gulls by setting traps, are now among the animal species known to demonstrate “cultural learning,” a phenomenon in which animals of the same species learn from other members of their group.

The new discovery was made by Canisius College professor of animal behavior, Michael Noonan, PhD, during a study that began five years ago at Marineland in Ontario, Canada. Noonan observed a four-year-old orca at Marineland luring gulls into his tank by spitting fish onto the water’s surface. The mammal then sank below the water and waited for a gull to come down for the bait. When it did, the orca lunged at the gull with open jaws. Noonan watched the same whale set the trap over and over again.

Within a couple months, Noonan observed the whale’s younger brother adopt the gull-catching trick. “It looked like one was watching while the other tried,” Noonan said of the whale’s initial behavior. Their mother soon followed in adopting the strategy and eventually the behavior spread through the killer whale population.

“It was once believed that most animal behavior, from the food they ate to the places they slept, was based on instinct,” says Noonan, who has spent the past eight years investigating marine mammal behavior at Marineland. “This new discovery supports the growing view that animals like killer whales are very prone to learning by imitation, and that they are ‘cultural’ by nature.”

Noonan added that this is an example in which a new behavior spread through a population. “We had the opportunity to see a tradition form and spread in exactly the way that cultures do in humans.”

Noonan presented his findings at the Animal Behavior Society conference in Snowbird, Utah. His research has been reported in the New Scientist magazine (London) and Science News (Washington, DC).

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