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Keywords:

  • human–wildlife interaction;
  • wildlife conservation management;
  • feeding behaviour;
  • maladaptive behaviour;
  • social learning;
  • bottlenose dolphin

Abstract

Although harmful human–wildlife interactions involving anthropogenic food sources are a significant issue for wildlife conservation, few studies have addressed whether social learning may influence how animals learn to use anthropogenic foods. We examined a long-term (1993–2003) human–wildlife interaction involving the illegal feeding of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) by recreational fishers in south-western Australia. We developed predictor variables for whether dolphins learned to accept food handouts from human provisioners, based on biological (age-class, sex) and behavioural (ranging and association patterns) data for a population of 74 dolphins. Two variables provided clear predictors for whether dolphins became conditioned to food handouts: the use of areas with high densities of recreational boats (BOAT) and the average coefficient of association with previously conditioned dolphins (ASSOC). An individual was more likely to become conditioned when it spent more time in high boat density areas and when it spent more time with other conditioned dolphins. When considering all the models available, there was strong weight of evidence for the effects of ASSOC and BOAT on the response variable. We were unable to detect any effects of age-class and sex with the available statistical power. These findings suggest that social learning can facilitate the acquisition of undesirable and maladaptive behaviours in wildlife, and indicate the value of long-term individual-specific data for the conservation management of wildlife engaging in undesirable interactions with humans.