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Behav Genet. 2010 Sep;40(5):706-14. doi: 10.1007/s10519-010-9375-8. Epub 2010 Jun 27.

Genes or culture: are mitochondrial genes associated with tool use in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.)?

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  • 1Evolutionary Genetics Group, Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland.


Some bottlenose dolphins use marine sponges as foraging tools ('sponging'), which appears to be socially transmitted from mothers mainly to their female offspring. Yet, explanations alternative to social transmission have been proposed. Firstly, the propensity to engage in sponging might be due to differences in diving ability caused by variation of mitochondrial genes coding for proteins of the respiratory chain. Secondly, the cultural technique of sponging may have selected for changes in these same genes (or other autosomal ones) among its possessors. We tested whether sponging can be predicted by mitochondrial coding genes and whether these genes are under selection. In 29 spongers and 54 non-spongers from two study sites, the non-coding haplotype at the HVRI locus was a significant predictor of sponging, whereas the coding mitochondrial genes were not. There was no evidence of selection in the investigated genes. Our study shows that mitochondrial gene variation is unlikely to be a viable alternative to cultural transmission as a primary driver of tool use in dolphins.

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