Innovation is a key component of most definitions of culture and intelligence. Because innovations can affect an individuals’ fitness, they are thought to play an important role in a species’ ecology and evolution. In spite of this, innovation itself has rarely been examined either conceptually or empirically. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) from Shark Bay, Western Australia are the only known cetacean species for which extractive foraging involving tools and its cultural transmission (i.e. non-genetic but through social learning) has been established. We study the evolutionary and ecological mechanisms underlying the rise of material culture in cetaceans in particular, and their potential effects on the conservation of marine mammals in general.
Working towards the resolution of the animal cultures debate is critical to understanding the trajectory of culture during human evolution: if it turns out that great apes use their imitative faculties almost exclusively for the regular, species-wide skills, then the few cases of unadulterated culture described for them are nice reminders of a capacity that has a much more limited scope than often assumed.
Such a finding would, for instance, force us to rethink the status of the artefacts found among all hominins before Homo sapiens. If, on the other hand, culture is ubiquitous in orang-utans, it will give us a much better basis for developing a theoretical framework for cultural evolution, from which to address the question of the elaboration of these abilities in humans.