NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario An enterprising young killer whale at Marineland has figured out how to use fish as bait to catch seagulls and shared his strategy with his fellow whales.
Michael Noonan, a professor of animal behavior at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., made the discovery by accident while studying orca acoustics.
"One day I noticed one of the young whales appeared to have come up with a procedure for luring gulls down to the pool," the professor said. "I found it interesting so I noted it in my log."
First, the young whale spit regurgitated fish onto the surface of the water, then sank below the water and waited.
If a hungry gull landed on the water, the whale would surge up to the surface, sometimes catching a free meal of his own.
Noonan watched as the same whale set the same trap again and again.
Within a few months, the whale's younger half brother adopted the practice. Eventually the behavior spread and now five Marineland whales supplement their diet with fresh fowl, the scientist said.
"It looked liked one was watching while the other tried," Noonan said of the whale's initial behavior.
The capacity to come up with the gull-baiting strategy and then share the technique with others known as cultural learning in the scientific world was once believed to be one of those abilities that separated humans from other animals.
But biologists have since proven certain animals, including dolphins and chimps, do this.
"This is an example in which a new behavior spread through a population," Noonan said. "We had the opportunity to see a tradition form and spread in exactly the way that cultures do in humans."
He first shared his research earlier this month at the U.S. Animal Behavior Society Conference in Utah. Since then, he said, his phone hasn't stopped ringing.