Crows and ravens can do this.

Cockatoos too.

And great apes anyway.

Even pigs and puffins have been seen doing it: They are using tools.

And of course dolphins also belong to this elite group.

Only about one percent of all animal species have this ability.

They mainly use tools to get something to eat.

Dolphins sometimes use strange techniques, such as so-called shelling.

Michael Krützen and his colleagues from the University of Zurich observed more than 1000 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay in Western Australia between 2007 and 2018 and analyzed the hunting technique for their study:

If their prey is hiding in the empty shell of a giant snail during the hunt, the dolphins carry it with their beak to the surface of the water, where they shake the captured animal in their mouth

Source: Sonja Wild, Dolphin Innovation Project

The behavioral researchers also examined how the marine mammals transmit and learn how to “shelling” within a population.

The dolphins probably developed this unusual hunting technique in 2011, when numerous fish and other animal inhabitants of Shark Bay died from a heat wave - including giant snails, whose empty shells were then lying around and finally used by the dolphins to catch prey.


Such foraging techniques actually pass dolphin mothers on to their calves.

In technical jargon, this is known as the

vertical transfer of behavior


When learning to “shelling”, however, the scientists discovered, astonishingly:

This tactic had spread primarily within rather than between generations, so it was carried over horizontally

Our results provide the first evidence that dolphins are also capable of learning directly from their conspecifics as adults and not just from their mothers.

Michael Krützen, Head of Studies and Director of the Anthropological Institute at the University of Zurich

The Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) lives along the entire north coast of the Indian Ocean

Source: Getty Images / 500px Plus / Gaby Barathieu

Thus, despite their different evolutionary histories and habitats, the sea creatures have something in common with great apes.

Gorillas and chimpanzees also learn prey trapping techniques both vertically and horizontally - from their mothers and other conspecifics.

The realization is an important milestone.

It shows that the cultural behavior of dolphins and other toothed whales is much more similar to that of great apes than was previously thought.

Michael Krützen, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Genomics at the University of Zurich

The fact that dolphins learn directly from conspecifics is an advantage for the animals: This means that new behaviors spread quickly within a population and the animals can adapt more quickly to changing environmental conditions.

This article was first published in July 2020.