Behavioural variation can be found across various levels of organization – among populations, social groups or family clans. Three main drivers have been identified to cause such behavioural variation: social learning of different behavioural innovations, genetic predispositions to behave in certain ways or differences in environment leading to the emergence of different behavioural patterns. Large parts of my MSc and PhD have focused on trying to disentangle the relative contributions of those three drivers on the spread of two foraging strategies, ‘sponging’ and ‘shelling’ in a population of bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia. During sponging, dolphins wear conically shaped marine sponges on their rostra as protective tools for when they search for prey buried in the sand. By integrating social, genetic and environmental networks in a multi-network ‘Network-based Diffusion Analysis’ (NBDA), we found that sponging spreads through vertical social learning between mother and primarily female offspring, while contributions of genetics and/or environmental influences appear to be negligible. During ‘shelling’, dolphins entrap prey in large empty shells of giant gastropods and then shake them above the surface to drain the water – and with it the prey – out of the shell. Contrary to sponging, shelling appears to spread socially among associated individuals. This is surprising, as dolphins are known to be conservative and follow a ‘do-as-mother-does’ strategy when learning foraging techniques.

For my postdoc, I have switched study systems from dolphins to songbirds, where I am investigating how changes in the physical and social environment can alter behaviour and learning strategies. Using great tits as a model system, I am investigating the drivers that can trigger switches from established to alternative behaviour in the context of tipping points dynamics. Furthermore, I am investigating the ontogeny of learning for fledglings during transition to independence in relation to their environment. As social learning allows for very rapid transitions from one behavioural state to another, it is crucial to understand in which context these birds employ which strategies. This, in turn, can then help us predict their ability to respond and adapt to changes in the environment.

Sonja previously featured in our ‘Pitch to Publication’ series, discussing her research on social transmission of a novel foraging strategy in the dolphins of Shark Bay (Western Australia). See her interview HERE.