Magazine article Science News

Getting the Gull: Baiting Trick Spreads among Killer Whales

Magazine article Science News

Getting the Gull: Baiting Trick Spreads among Killer Whales

Article excerpt

A young male orca that started regurgitating fish and then ambushing seagulls attracted by the mess seems to have set off a wave of cultural transmission in his neighborhood.

The innovative killer whale lives in MarineLand, an attraction in Niagara Falls, Canada, and behavioral biologist Michael Noonan happened to videotape the orca's early ambushes. As Noonan kept track, other orcas in the park also started baiting gulls this way.

The spread of this trick might be an orca version of people learning from each other, proposes Noonan, a researcher at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. His records offer a rare look at the path of a tradition, he reported last week in Snowbird, Utah, at the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society.

"There's nothing else so well documented in cetaceans," says Bennett G. Galef Jr., a social-learning specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He finds the new orca behavior "plausible" as an example of cultural learning but notes that it hasn't been confirmed by experiments.

Earlier studies of marine mammals, as well as primates, birds, and a few other animals, have suggested that animals sometimes pass along newly developed behaviors. Young orcas seem to learn ways of hunting, vocal quirks specific to their pod, and, perhaps, aspects of baby care. Observing the spread of a tradition has been difficult in the wild.

Noonan set up his orca watch at MarineLand more than 8 years ago to study the orcas' calls. By lucky accident, he says, he was there for the start of the gull baiting. …

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