Female Dolphins Sponge Their Way to Success

After 27 years, scientists finally appear to have unraveled most of the mystery surrounding a very enterprising group of (primarily) female bottlenose dolphins (tursiops aduncus) who live in Shark Bay, off the coast of Western Australia.

Why are those dolphins looking at me like that? (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

The story opens in 1984, when observers first noticed that some of the Shark Bay dolphins were breaking off conical marine basket sponges and wearing them over their beaks (rostra). Because only a small percentage of the dolphins in the area engaged in this behavior and it was very difficult to see what they were doing with the sponges, especially when they were underwater, the first research on this behavior wasn’t published until over a decade later.

Preliminary Findings: Tool Use by a Few Females

In a 1997 article in Ethology1, a team of researchers led by Janet Mann of Georgetown University described their initial findings: five female dolphins were regularly seen with sponges, and four additional dolphins (only one of which was a male) were each seen carrying sponges on a single occasion. The regular sponge users were relatively solitary, tended to use the sponges in a deep water channel area, and did not participate in the group feeding and social aggregations to which other dolphins in the group were attracted.

The researchers weren’t sure what the dolphins were doing with the sponges, but they assumed that there had to be some sort of functional advantage, since the sponges were often quite large, covering a large portion of the dolphin’s face, interfering with normal use of the mouth, contributing to hydrodynamic drag, and potentially impacting the ability to engage in echolocation. They considered three possibilities: that the dolphins were playing with the sponges, that the sponges contained some medicinal or other useful compound, or that the dolphins were using the sponges as a tool to aid in foraging.

They concluded that it wasn’t likely that the sponges were being used as toys, as the spongers were relatively solitary, used the sponges methodically for hours at a time, year after year, and didn’t engage in typical play postures, splashing or vocalizations as they carried the sponges. Similarly, they determined that medicinal or similar uses were unlikely, since, among other things, the regular sponge users all seemed healthy and there were no indications that they were ingesting the sponges (although the researchers conceded that this could be difficult to observe).

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to sponge I go! (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

On the other hand, it did seem likely that the dolphins were using the sponges to help them forage for prey: they were seen eating fish when engaging in sponging behavior; they invested an amount of time in carrying sponges similar to that invested by other foraging dolphins; and they made sounds and generally behaved in ways consistent with foraging. The researchers speculated that sponges might be used to protect the dolphin’s face, either from spines or stingers of prey animals or from the abrasive sea floor as they flushed out burrowing prey. In either case, they believed that this would constitute “tool use,” something that had been reported in captive dolphins but never before in the wild.

Finally, the researchers drew no conclusions on why males didn’t engage in sponging, except to note that perhaps it required a degree of solitary living that was at odds with their need to form and maintain cohesive and cooperative alliances.

Additional Findings: A Cultural Tradition of Tool Use among a Related Group of Females

Next, in 2005, Mann’s researcher team expanded on its findings in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2, with salient points of the research including the following:

  • Sponges Are Foraging Tools. By this time, the researchers had found 15 adults in the community who regularly used sponges, only one of whom was a male. Although not a focus of the paper, it appears that the researchers had concluded by this time that the dolphins were indeed using the sponges as tools to protect their rostra as they foraged for prey on the sea floor.
  • “Sponging Eve.” The researchers tested the mitochondrial DNA of the regular spongers and found that sponging had been passed on mainly along a single matriline (line of descent from mother to daughter) and that, due to the high degree of genetic relatedness, all spongers likely descended from one recent “Sponging Eve.”
  • Female Social Culture. After considering in detail whether the sponging behavior could have resulted from either a genetic propensity or some unique aspect of the deep-water channels where the most of the sponging occurred, the researchers found the evidence for these alternatives lacking and concluded that by far the best explanation was that the sponge use was being socially learned and transmitted from mother to daughter. The researchers weren’t overly surprised by this finding, given that studies had already shown that dolphins have uncommonly complex cognitive and imitative skills and the ability to excel at vocal and social learning.
  • Uncommon Cultural Diversity. It was particularly rare to see this sort of cultural phenomenon in a small subset of the overall population (a single maternal line comprising only about 10% of the females in the group). In other studies (for example, involving apes), this type of culturally learned behavior is seen across the entire population.
  • Can’t Explain Males. Once again, the researchers surmised that perhaps males didn’t engage in sponging because they had to associate at high levels with alliance partners, but they left this point open.

The Story Continues: Spongers Are Fit

The story continued to unfold in 2008, when Mann and her team published a paper in PLoS ONE3 that focused in more on whether sponging was an advantageous behavior, or whether the spongers were in some fashion subordinate or less competitive and were making the “best of a bad situation.”

I don't know what you mean, it's no more elaborate than the other hats at the Royal Wedding... (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

By this point, recurrent sponging had been seen in 41 of the dolphins and a few more of them were male (29 were females, 6 were males, and 6 were of unknown sex). This still represented a small percentage (about 11% of adult females were spongers) and, although it now appeared that more than one matriline was involved, the data continued to show that the behavior was consistently passed down from mother to daughter, and less frequently from mother to son: there were no instances observed where a calf adopted the behavior if its mother wasn’t a sponger, and of 19 offspring born to sponger females who could be observed and whose sex was known, 91% of the daughters (10 of 11) and 25% of the sons (2 of 8) adopted sponging.

Further, the researchers found that the spongers were highly specialized, not using other hunting techniques and spending approximately 96% of their foraging time using sponges. In fact, the researchers concluded that, due to their lifestyle and specialization, spongers actually used tools more than any non-human animal.

So, was the sponging advantageous or a way of coping for not particularly well-adapted dolphins? Well, the researchers did find that spongers were more solitary and spent more time foraging at deeper depths and on longer dives, but noted that they really didn’t seem to suffer from any kind of fitness cost, as their calving success was equivalent to that of other females in the population.

Since there was no evidence that any kind of competition for food was relegating the spongers to their strategy, the research concluded that sponging simply seemed to be an “all-or-none phenomenon,” that required a specialized approach and a commitment to a single foraging type, but that most likely opened up a particular hunting niche in a diverse environment. While other dolphins could theoretically adopt the strategy, the researchers noted that daughters in particular tend to adopt their mothers’ foraging strategy, and unless the mother was a sponger, a daughter might simply not have had sufficient exposure to develop this highly specialized technique while a calf.

Once again, the team hypothesized about the males, stating: “Male offspring are exposed to sponging as often as female offspring, but do not seem to adopt the behaviour early, if at all. … [M]ales likely range more widely post-weaning, focus on establishing long-term alliances, and cannot afford to adopt foraging tactics that both demand extensive effort and specialization and limit their range and access to females.”

The researchers offered no opinions about whether the male dolphins were simply slow on the uptake or whether they associated sponges with housework to be avoided.

The Latest Chapter: Explaining the Purpose of Sponging

While all of this research had answered many questions and shed light on a fascinating example of tool use in wild female dolphins, one fundamental question remained. Dolphins are great at using echolocation to detect prey (even prey that is buried), so why do the Shark Bay spongers probe the debris-covered sea floor with their noses, risking injury (even with the protection afforded by the sponges) instead of minimizing sea floor contact by simply echolocating for buried prey as they do in other locations (for example, the Bahamas)?

What a mess! This sea floor needs a good sponging! (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

This is the question is answered in the latest chapter, a research paper published last week in PLoS ONE4. Mann’s research team had fun with this one, grabbing poles and going sponging themselves. What they found, aside from the fact that dolphins are far more graceful than people, was that the nature of the prey turned up by sponging helps explain the dolphins’ behavior.

It turns out that most of the bottom-dwelling fish that hide in Shark Bay the sea bottom lack swim bladders, gas-filled chambers used by fish to control their buoyancy as they swim up and down. Because they lack the major characteristic that distinguishes their density from sea water, they generate relatively weak acoustic signals and are difficult to detect with echolocation. In addition, the debris (rock, shell and coral) on the sea floor in the area seemed likely to cause “interfering reverberation and echo clutter,” which would further reduce the effectiveness of echolocation.

Moreover, it’s worth it to go after these swim bladderless fish. They are attractive targets, as they are reliably present on the sea floor and exhibit consistent, predictable behavior when rousted out of their hiding places, allowing the dolphins to adopt a single efficient technique as they sponge. Further, bladderless fish tend to have a relatively high fat content, providing hungry dolphins with a particularly energy-rich meal.

So, the sponging female dolphins of Shark Bay really are quite remarkable. They have established a mother-daughter subculture of tool use in the wild, successfully devising a highly specialized way of exploiting an attractive niche in their diverse environment.

You go girl(s)!


1Smolker, R., Richards, A., Connor, R., Mann, J., & Berggren, P. (2010). Sponge Carrying by Dolphins (Delphinidae, Tursiops sp.): A Foraging Specialization Involving Tool Use? Ethology, 103 (6), 454-465 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.1997.tb00160.x.

2Krutzen, M. (2005). Cultural transmission of tool use in bottlenose dolphins Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (25), 8939-8943 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0500232102.

3Mann, J., Sargeant, B., Watson-Capps, J., Gibson, Q., Heithaus, M., Connor, R., & Patterson, E. (2008). Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges? PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003868.

4Patterson, E., & Mann, J. (2011). The Ecological Conditions That Favor Tool Use and Innovation in Wild Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops sp.) PLoS ONE, 6 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022243.

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  1. notbadscience

     /  July 25, 2011

    Really interesting article, cheers!

  2. Thanks – it’s hard to resist a good dolphin story!

  3. 1. Great post!

    2. More than one matrilineal line must mean that either the trick was invented multiple times nearly simultaneously (seems unlikely) or that there are rare cases of cultural transmission to females that aren’t daughters of tool users.

    3. I wonder if more males will keep sponging as adults when there’s a critical mass of male spongers that can form their own social group in non-sponging time.

    4. It would be very informative as to fitness if there are some female daughters of spongers who are themselves non-spongers.

    • Thanks Brian! Your point 2 is a good one; the research articles don’t address this, but I agree it seems unlikely that two females would invent the exact same specialized tactic – it seems more plausible that at some point an unrelated female learned the behavior through cultural transmission. On 3, it does seem that with each study, a greater number of males are observed sponging. BTW, as it happens I just posted a new piece on the social alliances of the male dolphins in Shark Bay (http://animalwise.org/2011/08/08/what%E2%80%99s-up-with-the-male-dolphins-of-shark-bay-who-don%E2%80%99t-use-sponges/). Finally, on 4, per the 2008 report, 10 of 11 daughters of spongers adopted sponging, meaning that one did not (the 2011 paper didn’t have any data on whether any additional non-sponging daughters of spongers had been observed).

      • Hmm. The rare cultural transmission shows a. that they’re capable of transmitting tool-using behavior between a mother and non-offspring and b. either 1. they’re not very good at the transfer for mental/biological/cultural reasons; 2. tool using isn’t vastly superior as a feeding behavior; or 3 combo of 1 and 2.

        One of 11 daughters doesn’t sponge. The curse of small statistical sets. But the fact that one doesn’t, and most males don’t, means that offspring of spongers can successfully become nonspongers and that sponging appears to be a choice that the dolphins can reject, and by not rejecting, demonstrate its potential fitness enhancing value.

        The weird thing about it is it seems both new and fitness enhancing. Odds are that we didn’t just happen to show up at the time of expansion of dolphins into a dramatic new niche, which is what something new and fitness-enhancing implies. My speculative guess is that they wipe out the sponges, lose the cultural knowledge, and then have to start over. I think I wrote a comment about it at Carl Zimmer’s place once.

        • As I understand it, the answer may be that sponging is relatively neutral, rather than enhancing, from a fitness standpoint, as the calving success of the spongers was essentially equivalent to that of the other females in the overall population. (Note, too, that adopting sponging doesn’t appear to be cost-free, as spongers spend a greater percentage of their time foraging for food than do other dolphins within the population, and they tend to be isolated from social interaction.)

          I gather that Shark Bay is a fairly rich and diverse environment, and that sponging is only one of the effective fishing techniques that these dolphins have developed (albeit the only one that involves tool use). The researchers believe that sponging has enabled a subset of the dolphins to successfully exploit an otherwise unused niche (the deep channel areas where fish tend to bury themselves in rubble at the sea bottom), but that there are other areas – coral reefs, shallows with sea grass, etc. – where the hunting is good as well.

          Here’s a quote from the 2008 paper: “Use of sponges as tools is but one facet of a broader pattern evident in the Shark Bay dolphin population: female dolphins exhibit multiple foraging traditions that are primarily vertically transmitted, and are indicative of diverse niche specialization within, rather than between populations or species.”

          Pretty fascinating stuff…

  4. “The researchers believe that sponging has enabled a subset of the dolphins to successfully exploit an otherwise unused niche.”

    That should be fitness enhancing if you adopt the Malthusian assumption that all occupied niches are fully utilized. A new food source should equal more dolphins than would otherwise be the case.

    It’s hard to understand equal calving success with an increasing population of spongers. Maybe the whole population is increasing from some natural or artificial low point.

    Anyway, good stuff and thanks!

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