Monday, June 27, 2005

Culture on Earth

Remember, back in public elementary school, those
Nature films showing chimpanzees placing thin
sticks in antholes to collect their morning meal?
Apparently, primates are not alone as animal

"When marine biologists first spotted bottlenose dolphins
cavorting off the coast of Australia wearing sea sponges
on their snouts, they didn't know what to make of the
odd behavior. Now, an international team of researchers
has produced evidence that the animals' antics represent
a form of culture, which would add the dolphins to an elite
group of species that pass traditions down through
generations without being compelled by their genes.
"We define culture as a behavior that is acquired by
imitation and passed on in a population," said Michael
Krutzen, of the University of Zurich in Switzerland,
who led the new research. "We think this behavior
is an example of that. It's very exciting." Krutzen and his
colleagues believe the dolphins, which live in Shark Bay
off the west coast of Australia, wear the sponges while
foraging for small fish, crustaceans and other food along
channels in the sea floor to protect themselves against
sharp coral and stinging critters such as stonefish.
It's a trick that appears to be almost exclusively passed
from mothers to daughters. "They wear them like a
glove," Krutzen said. "When they go down to the sea
floor to probe for prey, there are lots of noxious animals
down there. By using the sponge, it protects them."
... The behavior may be passed almost exclusively to
females because foraging along the seabed is a solitary
activity, and males tend to spend most of their time
traveling in groups searching for mates."

Rob Stein, The Washington Post, June 27, 2005.


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