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Released September 5, 2003


HATTIESBURG - Typically, the study of culture has been restricted to the human race. However, an ongoing study of dolphins at The University of Southern Mississippi has led researchers here to consider one aspect of culture in nonhumans, the ability to transmit behavior from one generation to the next.

The Southern Miss research was recently featured in the July edition of Wildlife magazine and detailed studies of dolphin play and cultural transmission. Dr. Stan Kuczaj, chair of the Southern Miss Department of Psychology, and his students have observed that young dolphins continually change their play activities to make them more challenging. According to Kuczaj, this helps the animals to learn flexible problem-solving skills, which in turn enables them to more readily adapt to changes in their environment.

"The big issue now in the study of animal behavior is whether or not animals have 'culture'. Do they pass information from one generation to the next?" Kuczaj said. "There's considerable debate about the extent to which this ability exists in animals."

Kuczaj stated that Southern Miss research has also shown that dolphin calves are more likely to learn new behaviors from other calves than from their mothers or other adults, suggesting that cultural innovations are initiated and transmitted among young animals. Consequently, cultural change is more likely to occur within generations than between generations; specifically, some methods of foraging for food, along with styles of play, have been observed.

"Culture isn't static," he said. "Like fads with humans, it continually changes." Kuczaj also suggested that dolphin calves and human children are similar in the extent to which innovations tend to be driven by interaction with peers.

"Dolphins, like human kids, have the ability to engage in flexible problem solving, and sometimes that emerges from play (with other dolphin calves)," Kuczaj said. "If we can take that playful joy and somehow make that part of education, we'd all be a whole lot better off."

The Southern Miss research has been conducted at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport.

Southern Miss doctoral student Robin Paulos of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, said the concept that dolphins could have their own culture is valid. "It's all about how you define culture," she said. "As far as the transmission of behavior is concerned, dolphin culture doesn't parallel human culture. However, the significance of peers in both species suggests a common predisposition."

"It's very interesting to watch generations of new calves and to see the changes over generations," said Paulos, who has been studying dolphins at Southern Miss since 2001. "There's still much more to learn."



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September 5, 2003 4:02 PM