Blindfolded dolphins can detect and imitate each other's behavior using 'sixth sense'

An article about a groundbreaking new dolphin intelligence study from the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys. (The most entertaining part, I'm sure, was teaching Tanner the dolphin to wear the opaque latex goggles... :))

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A new study reports a blindfolded dolphin can detect and imitate the fin splashes, swimming movements and other behaviour of fellow dolphins even when it can't see them.

Dr. Kelly Jaakkola at the non-profit Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys says the study involved a male bottlenose dolphin named Tanner who was blindfolded with opaque latex goggles and able to detect the movements of its companions.

Jaakkola says it's still unclear if dolphins use sonar or naturally emitted sounds to detect fellow dolphins, a form of navigation called echolocation. But she says the research is pursuing new insights about dolphin intelligence.

The study, called Blindfolded Imitation in a Bottlenose Dolphin has been published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology.

As part of the experiment, in a lagoon in the Florida Keys, trainer Emily Guarino blindfolded a male dolphin named Tanner with special latex goggles.

At a command, another trainer told his dolphin companion Kibby to say 'hello' by flapping his fins on the water, splashing noisily in the enclosed lagoon at the Dolphin Research Center, which houses 22 dolphins and is one of the leaders in dolphin cognitive studies.

When asked to imitate Kibby, Tanner was within seconds splashing back a greeting - a seemingly extraordinary feat given the blindfolded dolphin appeared to only be using sound to perceive and imitate the actions of his fellow dolphin.

The research suggests dolphins are master imitators that somehow can 'see' their environment despite blindfolds. But exactly how such a dolphin can mimic another's action is a matter of ongoing scientific study.

The centre's director, Dr. Kelly Jaakkola, said the research to better understand dolphin intelligence will surely help further their conservation. She said such study may also be helpful in better grasping the complexities of human intelligence.

'It's human nature to care more about animals we perceive as intelligent. So the more we can showcase that intelligence we give people a way to connect, to care and therefore conserve,' she said.

Just how blindfolded dolphins can pick up on the actions of other dolphins - whether through echolocation, sonar or other means - is still unclear. Echolocation refers to the sounds dolphins and other animals naturally emit to locate objects and navigate.

'Dolphins have this ability to echolocate by sonar, very similar to bats. And so one possibility is he is echolocating on that and he is 'seeing' the behaviour with sound,' Jaakkola said. 'However there is another possibility as well. Maybe he's recognising the characteristic sound of the behaviour, like if I asked you to close your eyes and I clap my hands, you would still be able to imitate that by recognising the characteristic sound.'

The study used three dolphins for its tests: Tanner was always the blindfolded subject and AJ and Kibby served as demonstrator dolphins. The study titled Blindfolded Imitation in a Bottlenose Dolphin is published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Tanner, who was previously trained in wearing the opaque latex eyecups, already knew how to imitate other dolphins' behaviors without blindfolds on. Nearly every time his eyes were covered, Tanner was able to imitate his playmate Kibby's actions, the researchers reported.

The study tested 19 motor and eight vocal behaviours, from waving a fin, to bobbing up and down, to spinning and even giggling. Training took numerous trials and, at first, involved only one eye cup used to blindfold Tanner. Researchers then moved on gradually to two eyecups. After the trials, trainers and researchers tested each behaviour twice while Tanner was sighted and blindfolded. The study was spread over 19 sessions in 11 weeks.

Since researchers sought to focus on whether dolphins can imitate companions while blindfolded, all the behaviours used in the study were already known to the dolphins.

Previous dolphin studies have shown dolphins can copy companion's whistles and motor behaviours, as well as computer-generated sounds. Dolphins also have a capacity to copy humans to some extent, according to Jaakkola.

The results are not at all surprising to Dr. Robin W. Baird, a research biologist at Cascadia Research Collective based in Olympia, Washington.

'This actually demonstrates that they are able to know what is going on in their environment at a different level than what they can just see,' said Baird, who works mostly with wild sea animals - such as dolphins, whales and seals - and did not participate in the study.

Janet Mann, a professor of biology and psychology at Georgetown University, read the study but wasn't involved in the research and said it's still unclear if Tanner was echolocating or one of the other dolphins.

'They didn't localize who was echolocating, so we could not rule out that it was the model and not Tanner,' she said. She also said the authors didn't consider so-called 'kinesthetic cues.'

'That is, if someone was twirling in the water next to you, then you might be able to tell by the water movement that they were twirling or could feel the bubbles if they were kicking away from you," she added.

It was the same question raised with Clever Hans, a horse which in the late 19th century in Germany was said to be able to spell or solve any mathematical problem by stomping his hoof with the answer. Later studies determined the horse was receiving unintentional cues from the questioners.

As for dolphins, researchers say they are intent on learning much more about their nature. For one, they want to know if dolphins imitate each other naturally to learn something new. Researchers also say they want to further test whether dolphins can imitate a novel behaviour in the playful, thought-provoking animals.

Read the full story here: Daily Mail