It's commonly stated that dolphins are one of the most intelligent species on Earth, but the latest research is proving once again that this lofty assessment of their smarts is well-deserved. Researchers studying bottlenose dolphins in West Australia recently discovered the animals employing a remarkably inventive technique, called 'conching', to nab their meals -- essentially using a conch shell like a baseball glove to catch fish -- and that more and more dolphins are ditching their traditional hunting methods for this new and improved angling tactic. With sleek, streamlined bodies capable of cutting through water at breakneck speeds, dolphins seem perfectly designed for chasing prey, but it turns out that their greatest hunting asset may actually be their minds -- and their willingness to learn from others.
A few years ago, biologists observed a few dolphins in Australia's Shark Bay doing something quite crafty: trapping fish in oversized conch shells on the seafloor, which they then carried to the surface to drain and shake until the fish fell into their mouths. At the time, the researchers noted that the only a few dolphins were using this technique, but now, it seems, 'conching' is catching on.
According to a report from The Daily Telegraph, the new fishing method appears to be gaining in popularity among West Australia's bottlenose dolphins, almost as if it's on par with the advent of sliced bread:
Murdoch cetacean research unit researcher Simon Allen said this previously rarely witnessed phenomenon might be becoming more common, suggesting the technique was spreading.
"In the last four months alone, the research team have seen and photographed the behaviour no less than six times, possibly even seven," he said.
"If, and that is a big if, we are witnessing the horizontal spread of this behaviour, then I would assume that it spreads by an associate of a 'conching' dolphin closely observing the behaviour and then imitating it.
"It is a tantalising possibility that this behaviour could spread before our very eyes, over a field season or two, and that we could track that spread."
As of late, researchers aren't entirely sure how refined the dolphins' conching skills have become. Some suspect that animals aren't merely taking advantage of large shells being available for fish to hide, but are in fact setting them up in a particular area to entice their prey into fleeing inside, making them an easier target.
"If we were to set up a few shells, opening down, in a known location and either witness dolphins turning them over, see evidence of them having been turned over when we weren't around, or better still get some video footage of dolphins manipulating them in some way, then that would be priceless, since that implies forward planning on the dolphins' part," Allen tells the Telegraph.
As impressive as this growing new hunting technique is, it isn't the first time biologists have observed dolphins applying their intellect on behalf of their stomachs. The animals are known to catch fish with a method called 'kerplunking', slapping the beds of seagrass with their tails which creates bubbles to drive out hiding prey. In other scenarios, dolphins have been seen carrying sea sponges in their mouths to forage the sea floor without scrapping up their beaks.
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