Humpbacks around the world herd shoals of prey by blowing bubbles underwater to produce 'bubble nets'.
The feeding innovation, called 'lobtail feeding', involves hitting the water with the tail before diving to produce the bubble nets.
Lobtail feeding was first observed in 1980, after the stocks of herring, previously the main food for the whales, became depleted.
At the same time sand lance stocks soared, and it would seem the innovation is specific to that particular prey, because its use is concentrated around the Stellwagen Bank, spawning grounds where the sand lance can reach high abundance.
Using a unique database spanning thirty years of observations gathered by Dr Weinrich, the researchers were able track the spread of the behaviour through the whales' social network.
Jenny Allen said: "The study was only made possible because of Mason's dedication in collecting the whale observations over decades, and it shows the central importance of long-term studies in understanding the processes affecting whale populations."
The scientists believe their results strengthen the case that cetaceans - the whales and dolphins - have evolved sophisticated cultural capacities.
The skills, knowledge, materials and traditions that humans learn from each other help explain how we have come to dominate the globe as a species, but how we evolved the capabilities to transmit such knowledge between ourselves remains a mystery that preoccupies biologists, psychologists and anthropologists.
|Contact: Fiona MacLeod|
University of St. Andrews